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"My job's just to dig the holes. Dig the holes, then cover 'em back up," Montgomery says. "I start my way in the back of the grave and work my way to the front, trying to keep it straight." Centering the backhoe boom on the headstone in an adjacent row, Montgomery gnaws at the earth with the steel teeth of his 32-inch (81 centimeters) bucket. This particular grave is an "open-up": A recently deceased 98-year-old rear admiral will be reunited with his wife, who was laid to rest on this spot, nine feet (three meters) down, in 1991. His coffin will go atop hers, at seven feet (two meters). In five minutes a yawning hole has been dug, with the corners square, the sides true, and the spoil in a neat pile. "When I've got the bucket like this with the boom all the way down, that's seven feet," Montgomery says. "I been doin' this a long time, and I just know it."

After each interment a hydraulic tamper beats the earth to crush out air pockets. Still, subsidence requires refilling up to 10,000 graves each year. The dead in fact need perpetual care. Each day maintenance crews mow 130 acres (50 hectares), reset dozens of leaning headstones, and power-wash a thousand. (Water pressure must be carefully modulated to avoid chewing into soft marble, particularly the older stones such as those in sections 1 and 13.) Because the white-painted headboards used during the Civil War had to be replaced every five years—at $1.23 each—Arlington briefly experimented with markers made of a metal alloy from melted-down munitions. In the 1870s, the government adopted white marble for national cemeteries; the familiar slab used today was designed by a board of officers after World War I.

Twenty-four inches (60 centimeters) above ground, thirteen inches (33 centimeters) wide, and four inches (ten centimeters) thick, each marker accommodates only the sparest biographical details and brief terms of endearment, all within a maximum of 12 lines, 15 characters per line. Each stone can also carry a spiritual symbol, of which 38 have been authorized, from Episcopal to Muslim to atheist to Hindu.

More than 6,000 funerals a year end in Arlington. A daily spreadsheet lists them hour by hour, giving not only the location and depth of new graves but also a few hints of each life now ended: rank, next of kin, military service, whether the deceased was a decorated veteran. To prevent the corteges from colliding and to keep maintenance work at a respectful distance from graveside ceremonies, a sheaf of maps shows hourly funeral routes on the cemetery's 45 roads and walkways.

"The challenge is to ensure that we beautify the grounds without in any way compromising the grave sites," says Erik Dihle, a tall, blond Californian who is the chief of grounds and burial operations.

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