Trash or Treasure: Arlington Cemetery Favors Refuse Bin

Section 60. Home of the brave and the final resting place of the fallen from this country’s most recent conflicts. A man sits at one grave marker, working. Cleansing. He is washing the headstone of the son he lost not long ago. A retired Marine approaches with a friendly, “Hello.” Without being asked, the man explains, “I’m taking care of my boy because they won’t do it.” His tone is filled with resignation about the loss as well as his post in Section 60. When the Marine later looks over, he sees the man caring for other graves just as he had that of his own son, one by one down the row. Meticulously. Orderly. Lovingly.

Arlington Cemetery recently has been in the news. An investigation shows a cemetery in disarray. The report found the cemetery’s paper-based record system to be inaccurate. Arlington has had plans to automate and millions of dollars have gone toward the project, but little progress has been made.

During an appearance before Congress, Arlington officials copped to instances in which existing burial maps failed to match headstones, providing an unwelcome surprise to loved ones wishing to visit a grave site. (There also is the matter of at least one set of remains that are unidentified.)

But the most egregious violation might be the policy of routinely discarding mementos left at the graves.  Tossed. Trashed. Thrown away.

But wait! According to an Arlington spokesman, while it is true the cemetery discards mementoes left at the graves, “Arlington is a cemetery, we’re not a memorial.” He further explained that Arlington has a “floral policy” that prohibits certain pieces such as “any type of commemorative items” from being left by the graves. The policy is posted and given to the grief-stricken, we’re told. (Apparently it has not been effective.)

According to our spokesman, generally, items are tossed after they become unsightly or a hazard to visitors or groundskeepers. (Ah. But if they collected them for preservation they would not become hazardous or unsightly. But, hey, Arlington is not a memorial.)

There are policy exceptions. Arlington will collect and save “religious items, military decorations, coins, and unit patches” (though some of these are forbidden by the floral policy). Arlington Superintendent John Metzler has cut Section 60 sites some slack allowing items to remain longer before they are trashed. (That’s … great, John.)

Arlington maintains, “It just would not be practical from an operational standpoint to try to collect everything, to warehouse it, or to leave it on the graves for an indefinite period of time.”

We say that’s a matter of perspective and wonder if the trash heap is the preferred alternative.

Trash or treasure? How do you see this issue?

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