Friday, December 23, 2011

Grave Trouble: 64,000 Arlington Dead 'Dishonored' - 64,000!

Arlington National Cemetery is in the news again. It's basically the same record-keeping SNAFU that surfaced before, with more detail. Executives got fired in June of last year, when more than 200 graves were lost. I gather that they weren't literally gone from the cemetery: just that records for them were scrambled.

That's not acceptable.

On the other hand, I'm not all that surprised that something went wrong. I'd better explain that statement.

One and a Half Centuries, More Than a Quarter of a Million Burials

Arlington National Cemetery has been around for about 147 years. Or 148, counting from 1863: when the Union confiscated land owned by General Robert E. Lee. There's a brief history of the cemetery online. Quite a few, actually, including:
A few things have changed since the War Between the States and Reconstruction. Take data storage and information technology, for example. Folks maintained Arlington's records, using pens (quill, fountain, and ballpoint), Typewriters, and Database software.

Laws, customs, and practices involving record keeping changed, too. And most of the folks who ran Arlington in previous decades aren't around to answer questions. I'm not making excuses here: just noting that any sort of inventory control is subject to human error.

Then there's the size of the place:1
  • 147 years in operation
  • 259,978 gravesites
    • More than 300,000 burials
      • Some grave markers have two or more names
I've run into the "30 burials a day" fairly often in the news. That may be accurate, but at 300,000 burials over 147 years, I get an average of about five and a half burials a day over the cemetery's history.

Honoring the Dead, Getting a Grip

Like I said, botching the records of 64,000 folks buried in a cemetery is "not acceptable." I wouldn't like it if it were just 64 cases of sloppy record-keeping.

But that's what this seems to be about, sloppy record-keeping: not having burials that involved tossing the body in a potting shed. Compared to some private-sector cemetery horror stories that hit the news, the Arlington affair is comparatively mild.2

Even the 'unmarked graves' are more a matter of folks in the early 20th century not knowing what late 20th century customs would be:
"...One of the biggest surprises uncovered by the review was that in most of the early 20th century, the cemetery did not include the name of a wife on a headstone when she was buried next to her husband. Under current practices, the name of the spouse is etched onto the back of the headstone.

" [Arlington executive director Kathryn] Condon said the cemetery will correct that by adding the spouse's name to the gravesite. She said it is not only the right thing to do but is also required by law.

"Accounting for the forgotten spouses alone will require thousands of corrections, officials said. In some cases, replacement headstones will be made. In cases where the headstones are considered historic, footstones will be added...."
(Associated Press, via
But still - 64,000 is a big number. And I could, by cherry-picking factoids from the news, post something like 'oh, the horror! the horror! SIXTY FOUR THOUSAND BLANK HEADSTONES!!!'

If I shoveled in enough unsupported opinions about the vile wickedness of the American military, I might even be considered 'intelligent' in the 'right' circles.

That's not gonna happen.

It's not that I think U. S. Army brass are supernal beings who routinely take a morning stroll on the Tidal Basin. Stuff happens. Sometimes it's losing track of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. In this case, it's a botched job of record keeping at a cemetery.

Mistakes happen - and sometimes the 'mistakes' were intentional. Either way, I think it's important to clean up the mess; deal sensibly with whoever was responsible; and take steps to keep the problem from happening again. As far as I can tell, the American military has a pretty good track record for learning from mistakes.

Goodbye Quill Pens, Hello Information Age

I think that, sooner or later, the American Congress will get around to putting the legislative process in an online, searchable, accessible, form. And that's another topic. Meanwhile, it looks like the folks running Arlington have acknowledged the Information Age:"...The most significant part of the review, Condon said, is that the cemetery for the first time has a single, reliable database that will allow officials to fix past mistakes and plan for the future.

"The cemetery is currently testing an interactive, web-based version of its database that will allow visitors to click on a digital map to see gravesites and learn who is buried there, ensuring the cemetery's records are open and accessible going forward.

" 'We'll have 300 million American fact-checkers,' [Gravesite Accountability Task Force co-chair John] Schrader said."

More-or-less-related posts:
In the news:

1 From a description of how the Arlington Cemetery burial records issue is being handled:
"...The process began with a hand count, using simple mechanical clickers, of every gravesite -- 259,978 to be exact. (More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, but some grave markers have two or more names.) Then, during the summer, members of the Army's ceremonial Old Guard unit used iPhones to photograph the front and back of every headstone, so the information could be compared against internal records....

"...John Schrader, co-chair of the Gravesite Accountability Task Force, said recordkeeping methods varied widely over the cemetery's 147-year history, from handwritten logs to index cards, to typewritten forms and two different computer databases. That sometimes compounded problems, as transcription errors were common. To avoid those problems, all of the old records have been scanned and digitized, rather than transcribed, to avoid introducing further errors, he said...."
(Associated Press, via
2 Deeds, dastardly and dumb, involving cemeteries:3 Crazy people don't always write like crazy people. I posted a micro-review of some tongue-in-cheek advice in another blog:


Brigid said...

I think the word you want only has one 'o': "it's loosing track of"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Right you are. Thanks!

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