News & Politics

The Last Full Measure

Each morning at Arlington National Cemetery, a team assembles to usher through some 30 burials with one goal: Make each grieving family feel as if its funeral is the only one that day.

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

The morning meeting begins at 7:44 in one of the four family rooms at Arlington National Cemetery’s administration building. Outside the large windows, the rising sun bathes the grass and distant rows of headstones in soft amber light. Eight cemetery representatives—four men, four women—settle into the elegant blue chairs and couches. Each clasps a copy of the daily schedule. It’s a sunny Friday in mid-March, one of the first warm days of spring. Today these eight people will attend a total of 30 funerals.

The cemetery is slowly awakening. The muted hum of a leaf blower rises and falls as a landscaping crew works to keep the lawn in front of the building meticulously clear. Interment crews begin to prepare gravesites for morning funerals. A flat-screen TV mounted on the wall hasn’t yet flickered on. When it does, it will display a live feed of the Tomb of the Unknowns. Outside Arlington House, the 19th-century Custis-Lee mansion high on a hill above the cemetery, an American flag will soon be lowered to half staff. It will stay that way until 30 minutes after the last funeral of the day.

Bill Vogelson Jr., a tall 61-year-old with silver hair and glasses, leads the meeting. The representatives, most of whom share military backgrounds, are focused primarily on noting the location of each service. They want to create the impression that each family’s service is the sole focus of the cemetery during their time at Arlington, so the representatives plot routes to and from each site to ensure that no funeral procession encounters another.

Two funerals at 11 am are close to each other, a hitch that’s resolved quickly: “Take them around this way,” Vogelson says to one of his fellow representatives, sweeping his pencil over a map balanced on his knees. “That way you’re not behind the other procession, in case they’re still there.”

Looking ahead, Vogelson notes that seven funerals are taking place at 3 pm.

“Seven!” one woman says. “God.”

A younger woman on the other side of the circle of chairs raises her eyebrows at the paper on her lap, shaking her head slightly. Seven simultaneous funerals are a lot but not unprecedented; Arlington typically holds 27 to 30 a day. Each representative will usually coordinate three to five.

The meeting ends at 7:49. Five minutes to review 30 funerals, and the day marches forward. Vogelson is on his feet and walking out into the brightening morning. He always walks fast, his stride long and purposeful. He has to move quickly. “Once things start happening,” he says, “it’s rapid-fire.”

Over the course of the day, Vogelson will get in and out of his government-issued black Chevy Malibu more times than he can count and will drive nearly 20 miles within the one square mile of Arlington’s grounds.

In the pocket of his black jacket is a folded copy of the daily schedule. He’ll coordinate five funerals today—at 9, 10, 11, 1, and 3—for a World War II veteran’s widow, a decorated World War II Army veteran, a Vietnam Army vet, a Marine who served in World War II and the Korean War, and a 19-year-old Marine killed on active duty in Afghanistan.

In recent years, most of the burials at Arlington are held for World War II veterans and their spouses; active-duty casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom account for only a handful each month.

The ashes of Ruth Siegel’s husband are waiting for her along a shaded wall in Court 2 of Arlington’s columbarium, a series of eight granite courts that house the ashes of more than 47,000 veterans and their family members. Louis Siegel died almost 25 years ago. His wife, who never remarried, lived to age 95 and met their grandchildren’s children.

The 9 o’clock service is brief, as are all Arlington services, which last from 15 minutes for a standard graveside service to a half hour for a service with full military honors. “Our goal is to ensure that we give every family dignity and honor for their loved ones,” Vogelson says, “but it is a very busy schedule, too.”

A small gathering of friends and family stands beside the columbarium wall as an Army Old Guard soldier places the pale-yellow urn inside the niche, stands at attention, and departs in a slow march. The presiding rabbi conducts the service, speaking briefly about the departed, reading a psalm, singing softly in Hebrew.

Vogelson stands beside the family, as he always does. Most of his work for this service is unseen—the trips to the site in the morning to make sure all is as it should be before the family arrives, the arrangements to order a new marble cover for the niche so that the names of husband and wife will be worn evenly by time.

The mourners place spoonfuls of cemetery dirt inside the niche one at a time. Then it’s over. A distant cadence sounds from a full-military-honors funeral nearby. Despite the effort to create a feeling of undivided attention for each funeral, there’s always the reminder—however faint—that there are others here, too, who have lost.

General Robert E. Lee left Arlington a century and a half ago, boarding a train headed south toward Richmond just days after resigning from the United States Army. It was late April of 1861. Virginia had joined the Confederacy, the country was on the cusp of civil war, and the stately homestead that had for decades belonged to the family of Lee’s wife—Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington—was no longer a place he could call home. His wife stayed behind, but not for long. Soon after Virginia’s secession was ratified, Union troops advanced on Arlington and she had no choice but to leave.

It was both necessity and the deep bitterness between North and South that made Arlington a cemetery in the third year of the Civil War, soon after the US government bought the sprawling estate at public auction. Washington’s hospitals were overflowing with mortally wounded soldiers; nearby cemeteries were filled to capacity. Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, outraged by Lee’s betrayal and resignation, felt that burying the Union dead at Arlington would restore honor to the land. Beyond that, he was appalled at the possibility that Lee would ever return to the mansion, high on a hill overlooking Washington, and believed that surrounding the house with graves would render it uninhabitable.

Some 15,000 Civil War dead were already buried amid the gently sloping grounds surrounding the mansion when Meigs first ordered that 26 fallen soldiers be buried directly alongside Mrs. Lee’s beloved rose garden, near the mansion. Two years later, a larger tomb—20 feet wide and 10 feet deep—was built in the same garden and filled with the bodies of more than 2,000 unknown Civil War soldiers.

Today Arlington Cemetery—the nation’s most famous burial site—is a good deal larger, by population, than the county with which it shares a name. More than 330,000 Americans have been laid to rest in its 624 acres, which stretch along the Potomac River across from the Lincoln Memorial.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft are buried here along with Supreme Court justices, former slaves, explorers, doctors, authors, astronauts, police officers, military officers, and enlisted members of every branch of the Armed Forces who have borne witness to every military conflict in American history. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the Army engineer and artist who designed Washington, DC, is interred at Arlington beneath a marble monument overlooking the city he planned. James Parks, the freed slave who dug the first graves at the cemetery and is the only person buried at Arlington who was born on the proper
ty, also lies here. Many of Parks’s compatriots, fellow emancipated slaves, are buried in Section 27. They lie beside thousands of Civil War soldiers, including the African-Americans who served with the Union’s US Colored Troops.

Arlington’s grounds are divided into 70 sections, with four (sections 54, 59, 60, and 64) serving as primary active burial areas. With the exception of Section 60, where soldiers killed on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are interred, there’s no rhyme or reason to determining where a veteran’s remains will be buried. A family can request a particular section; otherwise, burial sites are decided based on the locations of other funerals taking place the same day.

The military is intensely protective of the cemetery, which it considers hallowed ground intended specifically for those who have served their country. The requirements for burial at Arlington are specific and exclusive. Exceptions may be granted by the Secretary of the Army or the President, but they’re rare. Several families of civilians killed in the 9/11 attacks sought special permission for their loved ones to be buried at Arlington, but only one was approved by the Army—Charles F. Burlingame III, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, who had previously served in the Navy. For years, the military protested the erection of a memorial for victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, noting that the commercial flight had “no military purpose whatsoever.” A memorial cairn was constructed only after a congressional resolution was introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy and approved by President Bill Clinton, who countered that the bombing had been a direct attack on the United States.

Even with up to 30 funerals each day, Arlington is at no risk of running out of space—with several projects in the works, the cemetery will remain active until at least 2060. A recently opened boundary wall also doubles as a columbarium, stretching a half mile along the perimeter of the cemetery facing the Pentagon and containing more than 6,000 niches.

Arlington is both an active cemetery—nearly 7,000 funerals were conducted here last year—and one of Washington’s most popular tourist destinations, hosting 4 million visitors a year. They come to walk the rows of graves in the oldest sections of the cemetery, to linger at the eternal flame that burns at the gravesite of President Kennedy, to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns, where soldiers from the Army’s 3rd US Infantry stand guard around the clock. The Army’s Old Guard assumed the post in 1948, 27 years after President Warren G. Harding presided over the burial of the first unknown soldier from World War I in 1921. The tomb, built of marble quarried in Colorado, opened to the public in 1932. Two more unknown soldiers—one from World War II, one from the Korean War—were interred on May 30, 1958, at a ceremony led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A fourth unknown soldier, from the Vietnam War, was interred in 1984 and stayed in the tomb for 14 years before his remains were identified as those of Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie. In May 1998, Blassie’s remains were removed from the tomb and returned to his family in Missouri. His crypt at Arlington will stay empty.

For elite members of the Army’s Old Guard—soldiers required to be in excellent physical condition, between five-foot-ten and six-foot-four with proportionate weight and build, and having a spotless military record and the ability to pass a series of difficult tests—it’s considered the highest honor to stand guard as sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns. For this reason, a live image of the tomb is displayed in the rooms where grieving families wait to bury their own loved ones—as a reminder that they, too, are now connected to Arlington’s history.

Bill Vogelson is a military man, a retired 20-year veteran of the Air Force Band who started as a cemetery representative at Arlington 23 years ago. Long before he organized a funeral here, he experienced the services from afar—as a trumpet player in the band, Vogelson performed taps at more than 7,000 Arlington funerals. He was humbled to honor the veterans through music, he says, “but on the military side, you’re at a distance. Where I am now, it’s much more intense to be right up front with the family.”

Vogelson handles that intensity with an unflappable quality as he engages in a series of brief but powerful interactions with vulnerable people, in constant proximity to mortality and sorrow. Over more than two decades and 23,000 funerals, he has fine-tuned a balance of compassion and composure. It’s not his job to shed tears along with mourning relatives. His duty, as he sees it, is to give families the best possible experience—by making sure they’re able to focus on their own grief without thinking about the details of a funeral service.

As a cemetery representative, Vogelson is at work in almost every aspect of a funeral, from a relative’s first phone call to the moment the interment crew arrives on-site to lower a casket into the ground. He’s the one who assesses the rows of chairs to confirm that all are in alignment, who radios a ground crew for a runner if the grass is muddy, who fastens a wind band to a flag-draped casket to keep the cloth from blowing away.

One glance through the back window of a hearse confirms whether the American flag is draped properly over a casket (the stars should be over the heart); a hand against his inside jacket pocket tells him that yes, he has his vial of holy water (he’s the one who hands it to the priest). He has memorized the rhythm of a military funeral, the precise moment when it’s time to stand, to place a gentle hand against a daughter’s or widow’s elbow as she rises.

The whole process is methodical, which is not to say there aren’t moments that strike a human chord: There was the funeral just last week for a woman who died of breast cancer at age 35, a young mother. He has buried the children and stillborn infants of soldiers. Then there are the stricken faces of the parents of young soldiers killed on duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“These young men and women are very close to my son’s age,” Vogelson says. “I see the parents who are the same age as I am. That hits hard.” His face softens. Then, ever the professional, he adds: “We show the same level of compassion to everyone for their loss. But yes, some are especially hard. . . . We are all human, but you have to put your emotions in the back of your mind and put the individuals you’re dealing with and the services themselves as the utmost priority. You have to put up a filter. If you can’t do that, you just could not do this job.”

That filter accumulates moments and memories that linger. Vogelson says one funeral service in particular has stayed with him for 20 years. “I met with this family in 1990,” he says. “It was cold and drizzly, and there were only five people attending.” The veteran’s remains were cremated, and his ashes were to be buried. “His brother told me, ‘I’d like to have his Purple Heart put into the ground with him.’ ”

The deceased was an 80-year-old World War II soldier who had been blinded during the invasion at Anzio; as he lay recovering in his hospital bed, a Purple Heart was pinned to his pillowcase. It was this same medal his brother had brought to Arlington. Vogelson listened as the veteran’s brother told him how the blinded soldier had returned from war and gone on to earn a doctorate degree and teach at the college level.

Vogelson asked the man if he wanted to place the Purple Heart in his brother’s grave. The man shook his head. He w
anted that to be a final act of respect paid to his brother, after the service was over and the family had departed. He wanted Vogelson to place the medal beside his brother’s ashes. “So I told him yes, of course I would do that,” Vogelson says. He pauses as he remembers, then adds, “It just epitomizes what Arlington is all about, what a cemetery representative’s job is all about—both the sacrifice the veterans make and the huge honor that I had to be the one to put that Purple Heart in the ground with him.”

For a service that’s efficient and organized, the emotional impact of a standard-honors military funeral is surprisingly powerful. First, the quiet words of a priest or minister or rabbi. The mourners rise. At a precisely defined distance—each military branch has its own operating procedures that determine the location—seven soldiers move in halting, synchronized steps. They raise their guns and fire—one, two, three volleys. It’s surprisingly loud, startling even when expected.

Any honorably discharged veteran qualifies for inurnment in Arlington’s columbarium and a service with standard military honors, including a casket team, firing party, and bugler. The requirements for in-ground burial are more stringent, limited to active-duty members of the Armed Forces, any veteran retired from active military duty, any former member of the Armed Forces awarded particular decorations (including a Purple Heart), and current or former US Presidents. Full military honors—including a casket team, firing party, bugler, escort troops, colors team, band, and horse-drawn caisson—are reserved for those killed on active duty, commissioned and warrant officers, and high-ranking enlisted personnel.

A common misconception: Though a firing party consists of seven soldiers firing three rounds—21 in all—this is not the same as a 21-gun salute, which literally involves 21 guns and is the highest of military honors, bestowed only on US Presidents and visiting heads of state in diplomatic ceremonies.

Michael Isky’s granddaughter, a blond girl who looks to be 10 or 11 years old, is sitting in the front row of chairs before her grandfather’s casket. Sergeant Isky, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who was wounded twice in the Pacific and received two Purple Hearts, was a doting grandfather, an enthusiastic presence on the sidelines of his grandchildren’s baseball and basketball games. He died in February at age 88.

Isky’s family watches as seven soldiers fire three rifle volleys. With all eyes still trained on the firing party, the first notes of taps sound out. Gazes sweep over an expanse of grass and trees to find the lone bugler, a Marine in a red dress uniform standing among the headstones, her instrument raised, each note delivered with poise and purpose. It’s a stirring contrast of sounds—the jarring barrage of gunfire, the melancholy tones of the horn. The Marine lowers her trumpet as the last strain of taps fades into silence. She brings her right hand to her forehead in a slow salute toward Isky’s casket as the team of six soldiers folds the flag. The Marine at the head of the casket—Gunnery Sergeant Dixon, a short-statured black man—delivers the flag to Isky’s son, removing one of his white gloves before shaking the man’s hand. Dixon moves down the first row of family members, taking each of their hands in turn. The young granddaughter cries, her shoulder shaking, when he reaches out to her.

As the service concludes, Vogelson hands out red flowers for the mourners to place atop the casket. A pretty young woman lets her hand linger against the wood after gently laying down a stem. Then the small crowd begins to depart. A little boy in a blue sweater turns to look over his shoulder again and again, staring at the casket as his father leads him by the hand toward the car.

As always, Vogelson stays behind and watches them go.

Despite the regimented efficiency of Arlington’s funeral process, the cemetery makes every effort to accommodate changes in plan. And so Vogelson appears unruffled by news that the family of Private First Class James J. Corr hasn’t yet arrived. If a member of the immediate family is running late, the cemetery will delay or reschedule the service for a later hour whenever possible. Fortunately, that won’t be necessary this time.

James Corr was 18 when he enlisted in the Army, and the same age when he parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. He was a decorated soldier—recipient of a Purple Heart for wounds suffered while securing bridges for Allied Forces in the Netherlands; a Silver Star for bravery during the Battle of the Bulge, where he crept up on an enemy’s machine-gun nest, killing two and capturing five; and a second Purple Heart with an oak-leaf cluster for a gunshot wound to the leg in 1945.

Vogelson recounts another fact of Corr’s life while awaiting the family’s arrival: “His wife was just laid to rest here not long ago.” Corr died of pneumonia in February at age 84, a month after his wife of 60 years passed away.

Just before 10:30 am, Vogelson’s palm is against the arm of a blond-haired woman in sunglasses—Rosemary Corr, the daughter who has lost both her parents in two months—as he urges her to take a seat after the last note of taps fades. She settles into her chair while the six soldiers standing at her father’s casket fold the American flag in a series of choreographed movements, passing it down to the soldier at the head of the casket. He turns, drops to one knee before James Corr’s daughter, and passes the flag into her hands. “Thank you,” she says, her voice trembling. Behind her sunglasses, she starts to cry.

When it’s over, Vogelson stands at the side of the road, his hand over his heart as the hearse passes by, empty this time. Then he returns to his place beside the casket and waits, hands folded in front of him as the last of the cars pull away, his posture still in a pose of solemn respect. The interment crew will arrive momentarily. In the meantime, Private First Class Corr won’t for a moment be left alone.

Vogelson and his fellow cemetery representatives sometimes talk to one another about the services, about the personal philosophy that each of them brings to a challenging job. Vogelson’s own thoughts on the matter are simple. “I try to look at each service as if this was my son or my mother or my father,” he says. When it comes to serving the family in the front row, Vogelson asks himself: “What would I expect if I were the one sitting in that chair?”

In fact, he has been on the other side of an Arlington funeral. His father, William Vogelson Sr., was buried here just last month.

It’s only in the most extreme weather conditions that funeralgoers can’t hold a service at the burial site; this was one of those rare occasions, on a sunny mid-February day soon after Washington’s historic storms, when the rows of graves at Arlington were still covered by snow. So Vogelson stood with his mother, his wife, and his son in the glare of bright daylight outside the chapel at Fort Myer as his father, a 24-year veteran of the US Army Band who passed away at age 92, received standard military honors: the cacophony of the firing party, the mournful sounding of taps.

It was a reversal—Vogelson on the other side this time, among the grieving family members. He knew what to expect; he could anticipate every step of the 20-minute timeline. What he hadn’t anticipated was just how moved he would feel by something he sees several times a day: This time it was his mother who received the folded flag. Vogelson stood beside her as the commander of the Uni
ted States Army Band presented the triangle of cloth into her hands and softly spoke those familiar words—words Vogelson had seen him utter again and again at funerals for his father’s aging bandmates—his breath rising like smoke in the cold February air:

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.

The day that began with the inurnment of a 95-year-old World War II widow ends with the burial of a teenage soldier. At age 19, Marine Lance Corporal Eric Ward is several years younger than Vogelson’s son.

Eric Ward hailed from Seattle but was born not far from here, in Fairfax. He was killed just weeks ago in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and will rest in Arlington’s Section 60, where a typical row of headstones displays the birth years of fallen soldiers: 1973, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985. Ward, a model-handsome young man with blue eyes and a warm smile, was born in 1990.

Just before 3 pm, the sound of distant drums grows louder as the procession appears at the top of the hill on Arlington’s York Drive—first the team of white horses pulling the caisson that carries Ward’s flag-draped casket, next the Marine band and the Color Guard, then the casket team and the solemnly marching family and friends of the young Marine. Nearby, a group of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders stands beneath a large tree and salutes.

The band continues to play as soldiers carry the casket to its place before the rows of green chairs. Vogelson walks beside Ward’s parents and stepparents, his hand pressed over his heart.

The music stops once the casket is set down and everyone has assumed his or her place. In the quiet that follows, a spring breeze carries the sounds of muffled sobs. Several mourners hold folded tissues to their faces. Like all families, Ward’s loved ones are entitled to some time alone at his burial site after the ceremony. Vogelson watches as the flags are presented—one to each of Ward’s parents, who are divorced—and as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who occasionally attends funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, extends his condolences. Then Vogelson asks the funeralgoers to retreat to the nearby road to allow the family to be alone.

The crowd lingers on York Drive, watching from a distance as Ward’s parents and relatives embrace one another beside the casket. The Marine Band has departed, along with the lines of marching soldiers and the firing party. Only Vogelson remains nearby, his head bowed as the family of the fallen Marine says its final goodbyes.

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