During the Civil War, the U.S. government established a permanent national cemetery system in 1862 for uniformed personnel. Most of these army‐maintained cemeteries were located near a military hospital or major battlefield, although the battle dead were still frequently buried in scores of smaller, scattered plots, and the dead of losing sides were often interred in mass graves. After 1865, the Quartermaster Corps removed the bodies of Union soldiers from many of these smaller burial sites and placed them in large, more centralized cemeteries with standard markers for officers and enlisted men. It was at the dedication of the national military cemetery at Gettysburg (later Gettysburg National Military Park), only weeks after the battle, that President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address defining the nature of American democracy.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the national military cemetery system for the Union dead served as an important site of both individual and collective mourning, especially on Memorial Day—a national day of mourning for the Union dead designated by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 and by Congress in 1887. In these national military cemeteries, state governments, veterans' groups, and other organizations erected memorials commemorating particular units, states, or other entities. By the late nineteenth century, Civil War cemeteries at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Shiloh served as the nucleus of a system of national military parks. In 1872, Congress extended the right of burial in national military cemeteries to all Union veterans of the Civil War. To foster sectional reconciliation, the federal government in 1912 allowed burial rights to Confederate veterans in Arlington National Cemetery (originally established in 1864).
There still remained, however, strong local and regional patterns of mourning that militated against having all the war dead buried in national cemeteries. Families retained the right to reclaim bodies. The bodies of service members who had died in most subsequent foreign wars were returned by the federal government to the United States. During the Spanish‐American War and the Philippine War, the army created the Quartermaster Burial Corps to disinter those who died overseas and to return their bodies to the United States.
In contrast, World War I brought significant support among internationalists to create permanent U.S. military cemeteries overseas to symbolize the American commitment to Europe. This proposal aroused considerable opposition from families who wanted the fallen buried in home‐town cemeteries and from isolationists who feared that the European cemeteries would commit America to defend those countries in the future. In response to such disagreements, Congress and the War Department affirmed the right of each family to decide where a soldier would be buried. In 1923, Congress created the American Battle Monuments Commission to build and maintain permanent cemeteries abroad to cover U.S. participation in World War I. After World War II, this authority would be extended to cemeteries in battle grounds in Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
No overseas cemeteries were established for either the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Initially, Americans killed in the Korean War were buried in overseas cemeteries in Korea, but even before the war ended, Washington decided to bring all the bodies back to the United States. This practice differed from that of almost all other major nations, such as Great Britain, which buried soldiers on or near the battlefield. During the Vietnam War, the bodies of the American dead were flown immediately to the United States for burial in either national or private cemeteries.
In the twentieth century, Veterans' groups like the American Legion were active in ensuring that veterans and their spouses were accorded the option of burial in the national military cemeteries, especially Arlington National Cemetery. Since many of the cemeteries were established near the sites of Civil War battlefields or hospitals, they were widely dispersed. With some success—often over the opposition of funeral directors, private cemetery managers, and the national government—veterans' organizations pressured Congress to create smaller military cemeteries nearer to major population centers. The army finally agreed. Only a limited number of new cemeteries were added in the immediate post–World War II period, generally after sufficient pressure was placed on Congress by veterans' groups and local leadership. In 1962, during John F. Kennedy's administration, the army officially abandoned any plans for a new system of military cemeteries for 16 million veterans and their eligible dependents.
The army had held full control over the national cemeteries until 1933, when eleven Civil War battlefields near national military parks were transferred to the control of the National Park Service. Veterans' groups opposed to the policy of nonexpansion lobbied Congress to transfer jurisdiction of the national cemetery system away from the army and place it with the more sympathetic Veterans Administration (VA). In 1973, the VA gained control of most national cemeteries—except for Arlington.
National cemeteries have served as important sites for commemoration and public ritual, especially during Memorial and Veterans Days. American presidents have visited overseas national cemeteries to underscore U.S. commitments abroad. In the twentieth century, Arlington National Cemetery evolved into a powerful site of national collective memory with the creation of the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Memorial Amphitheater, and the burial of a number of prominent civilian leaders, most notably John F. and Robert Kennedy.
[See also Battlefields, Encampments, and Forts as Public Sites; Memorials, War.]
James M. Mayo , War Memorials As Political Landscape, 1988.
David Charles Sloane , The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, 1991.
Dean W. Holt , American National Cemeteries, 1992.
Garry Wills , Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1992.
G. Kurt Piehler , Remembering War the American Way, 1995.
G. Kurt Piehler
After 174 years, twenty-eight American Revolutionary War soldiers were returned in aluminum coffins by Canada for burial in the United States in 1988. A dozen years later, the United States was annually spending $6 million to locate and retrieve the remains of fewer than 2,000 American MIAs from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery stand guards twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
Across America and the world stretch the graves of approximately 1.1 million Americans killed in the line of military service. The federal government maintains 119 national cemeteries in the United States and twenty-four others in a dozen foreign countries, containing approximately 2.5 million gravesites. In addition, also restricted to those who served in the armed forces and their immediate families are sixty-seven state veterans' cemeteries. These homes for the dead are preserved by the nation for those who sacrificed their lives in its defense.
To understand such actions and expenditures one needs to consider the workings of civil religion, or the ways in which politics command the sacred and thereby divinely endow its causes. Evidence of civil religion is on U.S. currency ("In God We Trust") and within the Pledge of Allegiance (the phrase "under God" was added in 1954 in the midst of the cold war). Memorial Day is the state holy day, and national cemeteries and memorials its sacred sites.
Political systems, like religion, confer immortality to their elect. And what more deserving recipients than those who sacrificed their lives for the state? In a highly individualistic culture such as the United States, the preservation of these individuals' unique identities is paramount in the immortality business, which explains in part the considerable lengths the military goes to recover and identify its fallen—and the ritual care given to those whose identities are unknown. The Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes at no charge a headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased U.S. Armed Forces veteran not dishonorably discharged. When in 1980 the Veterans Administration began removing 627 bodies of unknown Civil War soldiers in the Grafton National Cemetery in West Virginia from their individual grave sites to be placed in a mass grave (with an imposing headstone bearing the inscription "Now We Are One") there was collective outrage from veterans and amateur historians. Despite the fact that space was badly needed, the right to individuated memorials was preserved.
To preserve the sanctity of these burial sites, the Veterans Administration runs a limited number of cemeteries, with one exception: the most sacred of sacred sites, Arlington National Cemetery. Administered by the Department of the Army, here across the Potomac from the national capitol lie the remains of more than 250,000 Americans. To preserve its purity occasional pollution rituals occur, as in late 1977 when the body of M. Larry Lawrence, the late ambassador to Switzerland and a fabricated World War II hero, was unceremoniously exhumed and removed.
With over 1,000 World War II veterans dying each day, and because the United States has been engaged in so many wars and "police actions," the problem faced by the National Cemetery Administration is lack of space. As of the beginning of 2001, thirty-one of the 119 national cemeteries are closed to new burials; only sixty of Arlington's 612 acres can hold new graves.
See also: Burial Grounds; Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform; Cemeteries, War; Civil War, U.S.; Funeral Industry; Immortality, Symbolic; Tombs
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.
Kearl, Michael, and Anoel Rinaldi. "The Political Uses of the Dead as Symbols in Contemporary Civil Religions." Social Forces 61 (1983):693–708.
National Cemetery Administration. "Statistics and Facts." In the Department of Veterans Affairs [web site]. Available from www.cem.va.gov/facts.htm.
MICHAEL C. KEARL
CEMETERIES, NATIONAL. Before the Civil War, military dead usually rested in cemetery plots at the posts where the men had served. The Civil War, however, demonstrated the need for more and better military burial procedures. Thus, War Department General Order 75 (1861) established for the first time formal provisions for recording burials. General Order 33 (1862) directed commanders to "lay off plots … near every battlefield" for burying the dead. Also in 1862, Congress authorized the acquisition of land for national cemeteries. Basically, two types developed: those near battlefields and those near major troop concentration areas, such as the Arlington National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia.
After the Spanish-American War, Congress authorized the return of remains for burial in the United States at government expense if the next of kin desired it rather than burial overseas. Of Americans killed in World War I, approximately 40 percent were buried abroad. Only 12.5 percent of the number returned were interred in national cemeteries. Beginning in 1930, the control of twenty-four cemeteries transferred from the War Department to the Veterans Administration, and after 1933 the Department of the Interior took over thirteen more. After World War II approximately three-fifths of the 281,000 Americans killed were returned to the United States, 37,000 of them to be interred in national cemeteries. By 1951 the American Battle Monuments Commission oversaw all permanent overseas cemeteries. Eligibility requirements for interment have varied over the years, but now generally include members and former members of the armed forces; their spouses and minor children; and, in some instances, officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Public Health Service.
Holt, Dean W. American Military Cemeteries: A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide to the Hallowed Grounds of the United States, Including Cemeteries Overseas. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1992.
Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
John E.JessupJr./a. e.