More local burial options coming for LA, Orange County veterans

Memorial Day at Los Angeles National Cemetery, May 2012.
Memorial Day at Los Angeles National Cemetery, May 2012.
Flickr user Kevin Baird

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For decades, servicemen and women who want to be buried in a veteran’s cemetery in Los Angeles or Orange Counties have been out of luck. The closest cemeteries with space are in Riverside, San Diego or Bakersfield, which makes it inconvenient for families to pay their respects. But that could change soon if two proposed projects are completed.

Since 1978, the Los Angeles National Cemetery has been closed to new burials of servicemen, although if the deceased has a spouse, a new grave will be dug to accommodate him or her. That means for nearly 40 years, LA-area veterans who wish to be buried in a national cemetery have had to look elsewhere.

Enter the Urban Initiative, a project of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration. The idea is to provide local burial options for families choosing cremation in cities where national cemeteries have long been full. The LA National Cemetery will break ground this September on a columbarium, an above-ground memorial that houses funeral urns.

“It’s gonna be huge,” said Tom Ruck, director of the LA National Cemetery, who gets a call every day from local families interested in the columbarium.

“A typical call would be, “Hi, we will still have Dad here still on the mantle, or we have Uncle Bob in the closet, when will the columbarium be ready so we can lay them to rest here close to us so we can visit him more often?”"

Eventually the columbarium will be big enough to double the size of the cemetery, which currently has approximately 90,000 graves. The first phase is enough to accommodate 10,000 urns, and is scheduled to open by January 2020.

Orange County, meanwhile, has never had an official veteran’s cemetery. Bill Cook, a Mission Viejo marine who served in the Vietnam War, has been fighting for years to change that. He and other retired servicemen would like to turn part of the former El Toro Marine base into a state veteran’s cemetery, and he says there is a lot of local interest in the project.

“There have been people asking me and calling me and they find my phone number somewhere. How do I get on the list? As if I have the list. I don’t have a list. I don’t even have a cemetery!” he said.

Currently, many Orange County veterans are buried in the national veteran’s cemetery in Riverside.

“We have often felt that this is not right,” Cook said. “We’re Orange County folks, we do not dislike Riverside, but it’s Riverside, not Orange County.”

Others are buried in private cemeteries. Cook says a number of local families have said they intend to disinter the remains of their family members from private cemeteries and move them to the veteran’s cemetery in Irvine once it is built.

“They just feel this is their home,” he said.

Last month, the Irvine City Council voted to spend up to $38 million on the construction of a veteran’s cemetery. The city is weighing two different sites, one of which requires significantly more environmental remediation than the other. Governor Brown’s budget, which must still be approved by the legislature, contains $30 million for the cemetery, which Don Wagner, the mayor of Irvine, said “frankly doesn’t get us close to what we need.”

Wagner said the city will decide how to proceed before June 15. Either way, he said he’s also heard the calls for a local veteran’s cemetery, especially given the importance of the El Toro Marine base in many major American wars. Many soldiers flew from El Toro to battlefields in Vietnam and the Pacific.

“For thousands of teenagers and young Marines,” Cook said, “this was the last place they stood alive on American soil. That’s the ideal place for a cemetery.”