headstone at grave 4791. Records say workers unexpectedly found unknown
remains there while digging in what was supposed to be an empty plot.
at Arlington National Cemetery suggest that workers found an urn of
cremated remains that had been dumped -- presumably accidentally -- in
a dirt landfill, reburied those remains as an unknown soldier, and kept
the whole thing quiet.
the publication of this article, Salon has now disclosed four separate
cases in which the cemetery discovered unmarked remains due to burial
glitches, mostly poor record-keeping. In a fifth case,
the cemetery accidentally buried the remains of one service member on
top of another in the same grave. Salon's reporting has led the Army to
launch an investigation of record-keeping problems at the cemetery.
simply marked "Unknown" are easy to find scattered throughout the
sprawling acres of perfectly aligned headstones at Arlington. In
addition to the famous Tomb of the Unknowns, there are hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of unknown soldiers buried there, dating back to the
should be old graves. The cemetery interred the last soldier rendered
anonymous by war back in 1984 because DNA has rapidly improved the
process of identifying remains.
But a Salon investigation has
turned up internal cemetery records that show that sloppy
record-keeping, not the ravages of war, blurred the identities of some
of those unknown soldiers at Arlington. In some cases cemetery
officials lost track of the identity of remains during burial
operations and simply erected an "Unknown" headstone above those graves
when they could not straighten it out.
In the case of the urn apparently found in the dirt
landfill, the internal cemetery burial records read: "Unknown cremains found in Project 90 March 1, 2002."
90" refers to the year, 1990, when construction was supposed to begin
on 40 acres of then-vacant land on the eastern edge of the cemetery
along Jefferson Davis Highway. Work finally began on that undeveloped
land in the spring of 2005, and it is now cleared and ready for more
graves. In March 2002, however, Arlington used Project 90 land only as
a vast repository for excess dirt from graves -- a landfill --
according to interviews with former cemetery workers, satellite images,
and pictures of that area from the cemetery's own Web site. Today, the new dirt landfill is located just to the
southwest of Project 90.
documents in this case show that the day after discovering the urn in
2002, cemetery officials had it buried three feet down in grave 5253 of
Section 69 of the cemetery. Officials then ordered an "Unknown"
headstone, according to the documents. That headstone still stands
there, near a stone wall, in an out-of-the-way section of the cemetery
at the very southern edge of the sprawling grounds.
headstone stands at grave 5253. Cemetery records suggest workers found
an unidentifiable urn in the cemetery's dirt landfill and buried it
has also obtained burial records for another unknown grave, No. 4791 in
Section 33 of the cemetery. Burial records show that on Nov. 25, 1981,
the cemetery ordered an unknown marker after workers went to bury a
service member in that plot and "that grave was dug for an interment
and there was a body there."
headstones labeled "Unknown" above the urn that was apparently fished
from the landfill in 2002 and above the remains from 1981 are
unremarkable. A passerby would probably assume the remains were
rendered unidentifiable from some war long ago.
Previous statements from top cemetery officials on
these issues have proved to be conflicting or incorrect. The cemetery
spokeswoman, Kaitlin Horst, recently informed Salon that the cemetery
would not answer any more questions about Salon's reporting. The
reason? Army Secretary John McHugh recently announced an investigation into the issues already raised in this series of articles.
would be inappropriate to comment further due to the ongoing
investigation by the Army inspector general's office," Horst told
Salon. "Anyone with information pertinent to the investigation should
contact the Army inspector general's office."
Army, which oversees Arlington, responded likewise. "Anyone with
information pertinent to the investigation should contact the Army
inspector general's office," spokesman Gary Tallman said.
remains found in the cemetery landfill are a disturbing new wrinkle in
the story of botched paperwork that has resulted in an unknown number
of burial mix-ups at Arlington. Sources familiar with Arlington's
operations have long argued that some whole urns containing cremated
remains likely go into the landfill, sometimes referred to as the
"borrow pit," but could not provide hard evidence until now.
The burial records for grave 5253. In March 2002, the cemetery used Project 90 land only as a dirt landfill.
to sources familiar with burials at Arlington, here is one potential
scenario for how that might happen: The cemetery buries married couples
together in one grave at Arlington, stacked one on top of the other. If
the spouse who dies first is cremated, workers bury the urn three feet
down. If the other spouse dies some years later and is buried in a
coffin, the coffin goes in seven feet down in the same grave. The
second burial obviously requires that workers first carefully remove
the urn and then rebury it on top of the coffin. During the second
burial, however, bungled paperwork or sloppiness might cause workers to
unknowingly scoop up the urn with the dirt. The urn would then end up
in the landfill.
The burial records for grave 4791. It says workers found a "body there" when digging in what was supposed to be an empty plot.
Salon previously reported on
cases where the cemetery also found unknown, unmarked remains in what
were supposed to be empty graves. In those previous cases, cemetery
officials left the plots unmarked, with no headstone at all -- not even
one marked as unknown. Workers unexpectedly discovered caskets in
graves that were supposed to be empty in May 2003 and then again in
January 2009. (Cemetery officials now say they know the identity of the
remains in those two graves by having studied burial paperwork from
surrounding graves -- though they have resisted doing any digging to be
A photo of Arlington's dirt landfill recently. It's located just southwest of where it was in 2002.
kinds of mishaps are unlikely at other, similar-size cemeteries that
years ago computerized operations and track grave locations via
satellite. Arlington still conducts 30 burials a day with a flurry of
paper that sometime goes missing, despite spending more than $5 million
over the past decade in failed attempts to computerize operations there.
the meantime, no one knows how common these burial mishaps and urn
troubles are. The total number of urns that have ended up in the dirt
landfill at Arlington is unknown. The total number of burial screw-ups
hidden beneath headstones labeled "Unknown" is also unclear. And the
total number of unknown remains underneath patches of empty grass at
Arlington, with no headstone at all, also remains a mystery.
large, brownish plot north of the structures and against the highway in
this Google Earth image shows Project 90 land 17 days after an urn was
found there in 2002, apparently in the light brown landfill near the
center of the plot.