By: Priyanka Deo and David Hodari
From the sidewalk on South Sepulveda Boulevard, it looks as though there are acres of untouched green which separate the street from the Los Angeles National Cemetery in the middle distance.
“People come in from outside and tell me that there’s tons of space,” says Rex Kern, the L.A. National Cemetery Administrator.
Those people are wrong.
“That space is full of markers,” Kern explains. A marker or headstone is the equivalent of a site without a gravestone. They can also be used for urns.
Veterans who were honorably discharged automatically earn the right to be buried in a national cemetery. Spouses and dependent children receive the following benefits as well:
-Burial in a VA National cemetery
-Continuous care of site
-Opening and closing of a grave
-Burial of cremated remains
-Placement in a columbarium
-Inscription on a headstone or marker
-Transportation of flower arrangements from committal service to gravesite
-Presidential Memorial Certificate
-Service with military honors
While burial in a national cemetery is a privilege of Americans who were honorably discharged from the armed forces, California’s national cemeteries are running out of space.
Out of California’s nine national cemeteries, four are currently listed on the Veteran Affairs website as closed for burials. This means that, a veteran cannot be buried at any of four California veterans’ cemeteries if their spouse is not already buried there. The same goes for the vice versa.
The L.A. National Cemetery in Westwood is a prime example. Out of the approximate 77,000 spots containing about 86,000 deceased veterans and beneficiaries (sometimes there will be more than one family member to a spot), fewer than 100 are open.
Similarly, out of over 5,600 niches in the columbarium built in 1942, fewer than 50 remain unfilled.
Spouses and beneficiaries make up a significant proportion of those buried in veterans’ cemeteries. Of the 65,535 deceased that are accounted for by government data, 26.9 percent were non-veterans themselves.
After serving as the director of national cemeteries in Louisiana and Kansas, Rex Kern has been the director since August 2014. Though he tries to not turn anyone down, the cemetery currently only accepts casket burials from those killed in active duty.
Kern himself knows the danger that veterans have faced – he himself served in the first Gulf War. “I was there when they lit the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire,” he said.
So where do all of the remaining veterans and beneficiaries go if they are being turned down for a proper burial?
Even the columbarium, which was built in 1942 is completely full. It contains 5,600 niches plus 42 additional niches reserved for beneficiaries.
As a veteran himself, Kern mentioned that he feels a little daunted by his new job. He does not want to turn people away.
Veteran Evan Bailey, 32, who served in Fort Lewis, Washington between 2002-2004 stated that even though he does not associate strongly with the veteran subculture, it still ‘makes him sad to think of so many people who have died in wars that are buried in those cemeteries.’
This is not news to former director Corporal George Bacon. As one of Kern’s predecessors, Bacon was the cemetery director for the two years until May 2014.
“Before I arrived, none of the directors had determined whether there were spots available,” Bacon said.
Over their tenures, Bacon and Kern remedied this problem, and now Kern himself selects new gravesites by, himself, walking around the vast cemetery.
“We could add more gravesites in, but that would ruin the uniformity of the cemetery,” said Kern. “We could also add some in near bushes or curbs, but it’s a matter of respect.”
When asked whether special accommodations were made for beneficiary burials, Bacon stated, “Regardless of whether it is a beneficiary or a veteran, it is always first come first serve.
We make no distinction regarding anybody’s status in the community and this holds true for spouses [must have been married at the time of passing] and dependant children as well.”
The choice for Angeleno veterans with living spouses and dependents is stark. Either they register for the nearest open veterans’ cemetery close to 75 miles away in Riverside or go to a non-veterans’ cemetery.
The latter option is expensive. There are only three cemeteries in Los Angeles county which offer burials for less than $2,000. If not buried in a national cemetery, veterans may be eligible for a ‘plot allowance’ if:
-they were discharged for disability incurred/aggravated while serving OR
-they were in receipt of compensation or pension OR
-they died on VA premises.
According to research from the University of Southern California (link), the average burial cost in Los Angeles ranges between $8,000 and $10,000.
At America’s biggest cemetery, Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, casket burials begin at $3,600.
Lynn Badertscher, one of Rose Hill’s family funeral counselors, outlined the discounts his cemetery offers for veterans.
“The discount for veterans is about 10 percent,” the salesman said, “and to be honest with you, the regular discount you get just for showing up to one of our seminars is bigger than that.”
There is, however, good news for current veterans. Although vets cannot reserve cemetery space in advance, the construction of a new columbarium at the L.A. National Cemetery is underway.
This was the result of a 2011 lawsuit against the VA that prevented the VA to put a hold on property transactions. The lawsuit went in favor of the VA and developments are already underway.
The proposed new columbarium will hold approximately 15,000 niches that are all 12×12 inches. This will allow each space to hold two urns; one for the veteran and one for the beneficiary.
According to Rex Kern, it will take roughly six more months to finalize plans and nine months to actually build the structure.
“There are very few people who fought in World War One still alive. We’re about to hit the peak for World War Two and Korean war vets passing away – a lot of them are in their early nineties,” Kern said. “The life expectancy of some of the Vietnam vets is shorter because of Agent Orange.”
Kern stated that this problem will continue to persist. “There will always be veterans and beneficiaries. Eventually, even the new spaces will run out.
For now, though, the new space can not come quickly enough.
For a map of California’s Veteran’s Cemeteries, click here.
The data was obtained by searching for ‘California Veterans’ on data.gov. The title of the dataset was ‘Gravesite Locations of Veterans and Beneficiaries in CA as of January 2015.’ We did not need to file any FOIA requests for our data.
When initially examining the data set, it was cleaned and organized according to the name of the veteran. This was not of value to the project since the focus was not on individuals. A custom sort was performed using the ‘relationship’ column. This enabled us to see the type of beneficiaries burials in California VA Cemeteries.
We then visualized and created a pie chart on Google Fusion which showed the number of veterans and beneficiaries by type as per the dataset. The chart showed that 71% buried were veterans themselves, and 25.5% were wives.
When searched, multiple articles appeared online stating that the national cemeteries were running out of space. Looking back at the dataset, it was noticed that many of the significant proportion of burials were spouses and beneficiary burials.
From here, two further questions arose. First, how many spaces were allotted to beneficiary burials and did they receive any preferences or special accommodations? Second, due to the lack of space in cemeteries, did beneficiaries still receive the same stature as veterans themselves?
Both of these questions were answered when we interviewed Director Bacon and Director Kern. Spaces were allocated first come first serve and beneficiaries still received the same stature of veterans despite the lack of space. Additionally, it was found that beneficiaries would always be buried next to the veteran if they passed away after.
However, when vetting the data source, a flaw was noticed between the data set and another figure Director Kern provided. The dataset only includes 65,535 entries across all of the national cemeteries in California. Kern stated that there were currently 77,000 spots in the LA national cemetery alone with close to 86,000 buried.
We tried contacting the person who maintained the dataset multiple times. There was no reply. In light of this, we decided that the dataset was still usable. We came to the conclusion after Kern mentioned that many number of those buried at L.A. were from the Civil War onwards and those burials were not recorded comprehensively at the time.
From this we decided that we could not possibly attain a complete data set, but that the one we currently have is relevant and sufficient for a story as it still shows that in addition to veterans buried, a significant number of burials are beneficiaries.
As regards the story itself. We became aware (during the writing of the story) that NBC4 California covered a similar story a few years ago. We see this story as a news update of that, as new developments have occurred.
We reached out to several vets multiple times. There was no response.
Similarly, while we were able to speak to a couple of current soldiers, they would not allow us to use their last names, so we decided not to include them in the article.