Keeping up the National Cemetery proves to be quite the task
SALISBURY — When the orange golf flag goes up behind the Committal Shelter, crews silence their equipment and stop talking.
On the hill above them, words of prayer and conclusion are said over the remains of a U.S. military veteran or his or her spouse.
In a few minutes, the flag comes down — the signal that the service is over and work can continue on a $4 million project to ensure burials continue in the Salisbury National Cemetery for 10 more years and beyond.
The construction zone teems with men and machines. They are moving earth, terracing the land, spreading gravel, building drainage systems and delivering crypts.
This summer, some 3,400 crypts will be set — accurate in their in-ground placement to within a half-inch. In theory, if each of these concrete, double crypts were filled with a veteran and spouse (one on top of the other), 6,800 additional bodies could be interred.
Just behind the Committal Shelter, contractors also are building a 1,000-niche columbarium.
Each niche will hold cremated remains. Those remains, usually in an urn, will rest behind a marble cover and be part of attractive memorial walls.
As another Memorial Day is celebrated today, flags adorn some 11,000 grave sites in the Salisbury National Cemetery, which actually encompasses two locations on opposite ends of town.
Cemetery Director John T. Spruyt emphasizes the two cemetery sites are treated as one national cemetery, taking in 65 acres total.
The original cemetery, established and dedicated by the U.S government after the Civil War, covers 15 acres along Railroad Street, on the north side of the shuttered Cone Mills plant.
It has about 7,000 white markers.
The second cemetery — the only “open” national cemetery site in North Carolina — sits on 50 acres adjacent to the Hefner VA Medical Center. The first burial happened here in March 2000.
It now has roughly 4,000 white markers, but is likely to surpass the other site in years to come.
Together, the burial grounds are home to roughly 25,000 interments, if you count spouses and thousands of unidentified soldiers in trenches at the original site. Those soldiers died mostly from disease and starvation at the Salisbury Confederate Prison.
The “conversion” project now under way at the active cemetery will provide for a better utilization of space. It can fit, for example, 1,500 crypts in an acre, compared to the 700 grave liners per acre under the current burial method.
Spruyt says converting to the crypts will utilize about 45 percent more space.
The double-compartment crypts also will save time.
Workers will no longer have to dig a 7-foot-deep grave for every new burial and insert the concrete grave liner.
Instead, with the crypts already underground and in place, they only will have to remove the top layer of turf and soil, open the crypt’s lid, remove a divider in the middle, drop in a casket, return the divider, close it up and replace the dirt.
Crypts for the conversion sections (12 and 13) are arriving by truck every day, about 75 a day. The crypts will be set in their permanent positions in sections 12 and 13 later.
The cemetery’s existing columbarium of 480 niches is almost full. The new columbarium of 1,000 niches also should provide enough spaces for at least 10 more years.
Staging on this entire project started last November. Construction is supposed to be finished by mid September.
The VA cemetery location — the main entrance is off Statesville Boulevard — had 700 burials in the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2011.
“It has boomed,” Cemetery Grounds Foreman Tim Blume says of the numbers, which were half that this location’s earlier days.
While the deaths in recent years of World War II veterans often are cited for the burgeoning interments in national cemeteries, Spruyt credits the National Cemetery Administration for doing a better job of outreach in making all military veterans realize this free benefit is available to them.
“It’s a benefit a lot of people don’t like to talk about, let’s put it that way, but eventually they will,” Spruyt says.
Only 20 percent of veterans end up taking advantage of the burial benefit, which also extends to their spouses or dependent children up to 18, or 21 if they are in college.
At the active cemetery on the VA grounds, Blue supervises a crew of seven guys who do everything. They dig graves, set markers, mow, weed, edge, trim trees, power-wash signs, tend to flowers and know all the ins and outs of turf management and pesticide control.
“I’m grateful,” Blume says of having men who know every job. “I’d rather my guys be experts.”
Spruyt, Blume and his crew are among 1,500 employees nationwide in the National Cemetery Administration, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some 85 percent in the NCA are ex-military, such as Blume, who served in the Marine Corps for nine years. He says his whole crew is made up of veterans.
North Carolina also has national cemeteries in New Bern, Raleigh and Wilmington, but they are all considered closed, except for the burials of spouses (or veterans who have outlived their spouses).
The same goes for Salisbury’s original cemetery site off Railroad Street.
Spruyt, a former bond broker in Manhattan, oversees all the N.C. national cemeteries and one in Danville, Va. The other N.C. sites (and Salisbury’s original cemetery) have contractual agreements with private companies for maintenance of those locations.
Spruyt says the priority at the VA-adjacent site is always on burials. Work is scheduled around those ceremonies.
“Like I stress to the guys all the time, you only get one chance to do it right,” Spruyt says.
Blume says a constant challenge in the cemeteries is to keep the white markers straight and level. Each marker is 42 inches tall, 4 inches thick and 13 inches wide, and sometimes it might take 20 years for a marker to settle completely into the ground, Blume says.
Twice a year, Blume and his men do assessments and make corrections. The cemeteries also might benefit from full-scale turf improvement and headstone realignment projects, such as one a couple of years ago at the original Salisbury National Cemetery site.
Spruyt says the NCA gives the national cemeteries 60 days after a burial to erect a permanent white marker. The headstones, which come from quarries in Georgia, Alabama, Ohio or Vermont, usually are set in place much sooner than that — usually two to three weeks.
Blume says if a soldier dies on active duty and is being laid to rest at Salisbury National Cemetery, someone from his staff will take a blank tablet to a Rock Hill, S.C., monument company to have the information sandblasted into the stone.
The marker comes back the same day.
Graves for active-duty casualties also are put into pre-established areas, Blume explains, so the family can have closure sooner.
The NCA takes particular pride in its customer service rankings, which have been at 95 percent satisfaction over the past four years, Spruyt says.
Blume says people in the community often approach him and his men outside of work and thank them. They remember the guys from a memorial service or know how hard they work on keeping up the cemetery grounds.
It’s a good feeling, Blume says.
“Everyone here is getting satisfaction out of what we do,” he adds.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.