For the first time in decades, veterans and local military families have access to a final resting place alongside fellow servicemembers in the city of L.A.
The Los Angeles National Cemetery, closed to new burials since 1978, is once again accepting applications for interment.
“It’s fantastic, and I’m starting to tear up a bit, because I know what it means to the veterans and their family members,” said cemetery director Tom Ruck.
The openings are thanks to a newly expanded columbarium, a series of thick concrete walls with niches to store cremated remains, which opened Oct. 1. As property values climb and space for below-ground burials becomes scarcer, the Department of Veterans Affairs is building more of these high-density memorial structures in cities around the country.
For myriad personal and religious reasons, the columbarium option is not for everyone. Angeleno families who choose a casket burial will still have to drive to Riverside or Bakersfield for the nearest veterans cemetery with room to accommodate new applications.
The L.A. National Cemetery, first put to use in 1889, is home to servicemembers from conflicts dating back to the Civil War. It houses roughly 90,000 graves between Brentwood and Westwood, just east of the 405, north of Wilshire Blvd.
Moviegoers may recognize the solemn white stone markers dotting an immaculate green lawn; film shoots sometimes use the setting as a substitute for Arlington National Cemetery.
The new columbarium niches are behind UCLA’s Jackie Robinson baseball stadium on the West L.A. Veterans Affairs campus, across the freeway from the main cemetery.
The first phase of expansion includes space for about 10,000 veterans, their spouses and qualifying dependent children. The ultimate project should nearly double the capacity of the entire cemetery to 180,000.
Veterans have to meet certain criteria to be eligible for burial in a national cemetery, including being discharged with status other than “dishonorable.” Niche, marker and site upkeep are free of charge, but cremation must be arranged and paid for independently.
Ruck said that applicants can’t reserve specific columbarium niches. “We can’t take reservations,” he said. “We just can’t.”
He expects a bit of a rush from years of pent-up demand. After 40 years of “no vacancies” at the local veterans cemetery, Angelenos who may be holding on to remains in an urn at home can find them a permanent resting place in the new structure.
“I can tell you that there’s a whole lot of people who have mom, or dad or uncle or brother in the closet, just waiting for this to happen,” Ruck said. “We’re going to be able to take care of them with dignity, with honor and with pride.”
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