Cremated remains from Arlington Cemetery dumped in landfill

More burial mix-ups unearthed at the troubled graveyard

Topics: Arlington National Cemetery Investigation, Valentines Day, Bolivia,

Cremated remains from Arlington Cemetery dumped in landfill

Records at Arlington National Cemetery suggest that workers found an urn of cremated remains that had been dumped — presumably accidentally — in a dirt landfill, reburied those remains as an unknown soldier, and kept the whole thing quiet.

With the publication of this article, Salon has now disclosed four separate cases in which the cemetery discovered unmarked remains due to burial glitches, mostly poor record-keeping. In a fifth case, the cemetery accidentally buried the remains of one service member on top of another in the same grave. Salon’s reporting has led the Army to launch an investigation of record-keeping problems at the cemetery.

Gravestones simply marked “Unknown” are easy to find scattered throughout the sprawling acres of perfectly aligned headstones at Arlington. In addition to the famous Tomb of the Unknowns, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unknown soldiers buried there, dating back to the Civil War.

These should be old graves. The cemetery interred the last soldier rendered anonymous by war back in 1984 because DNA has rapidly improved the process of identifying remains.

But a Salon investigation has turned up internal cemetery records that show that sloppy record-keeping, not the ravages of war, blurred the identities of some of those unknown soldiers at Arlington. In some cases cemetery officials lost track of the identity of remains during burial operations and simply erected an “Unknown” headstone above those graves when they could not straighten it out.

In the case of the urn apparently found in the dirt landfill, the internal cemetery burial records read: “Unknown cremains found in Project 90 March 1, 2002.”

“Project 90″ refers to the year, 1990, when construction was supposed to begin on 40 acres of then-vacant land on the eastern edge of the cemetery along Jefferson Davis Highway. Work finally began on that undeveloped land in the spring of 2005, and it is now cleared and ready for more graves. In March 2002, however, Arlington used Project 90 land only as a vast repository for excess dirt from graves — a landfill — according to interviews with former cemetery workers, satellite images, and pictures of that area from the cemetery’s own Web site. Today, the new dirt landfill is located just to the southwest of Project 90.

The documents in this case show that the day after discovering the urn in 2002, cemetery officials had it buried three feet down in grave 5253 of Section 69 of the cemetery. Officials then ordered an “Unknown” headstone, according to the documents. That headstone still stands there, near a stone wall, in an out-of-the-way section of the cemetery at the very southern edge of the sprawling grounds.

Salon/Mark Benjamin

A headstone stands at grave 5253. Cemetery records suggest workers found an unidentifiable urn in the cemetery’s dirt landfill and buried it here.

Salon has also obtained burial records for another unknown grave, No. 4791 in Section 33 of the cemetery. Burial records show that on Nov. 25, 1981, the cemetery ordered an unknown marker after workers went to bury a service member in that plot and “that grave was dug for an interment and there was a body there.”

The headstones labeled “Unknown” above the urn that was apparently fished from the landfill in 2002 and above the remains from 1981 are unremarkable. A passerby would probably assume the remains were rendered unidentifiable from some war long ago.

Previous statements from top cemetery officials on these issues have proved to be conflicting or incorrect. The cemetery spokeswoman, Kaitlin Horst, recently informed Salon that the cemetery would not answer any more questions about Salon’s reporting. The reason? Army Secretary John McHugh recently announced an investigation into the issues already raised in this series of articles.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further due to the ongoing investigation by the Army inspector general’s office,” Horst told Salon. “Anyone with information pertinent to the investigation should contact the Army inspector general’s office.”

The Army, which oversees Arlington, responded likewise. “Anyone with information pertinent to the investigation should contact the Army inspector general’s office,” spokesman Gary Tallman said.

The remains found in the cemetery landfill are a disturbing new wrinkle in the story of botched paperwork that has resulted in an unknown number of burial mix-ups at Arlington. Sources familiar with Arlington’s operations have long argued that some whole urns containing cremated remains likely go into the landfill, sometimes referred to as the “borrow pit,” but could not provide hard evidence until now.


The burial records for grave 5253. In March 2002, the cemetery used Project 90 land only as a dirt landfill.

According to sources familiar with burials at Arlington, here is one potential scenario for how that might happen: The cemetery buries married couples together in one grave at Arlington, stacked one on top of the other. If the spouse who dies first is cremated, workers bury the urn three feet down. If the other spouse dies some years later and is buried in a coffin, the coffin goes in seven feet down in the same grave. The second burial obviously requires that workers first carefully remove the urn and then rebury it on top of the coffin. During the second burial, however, bungled paperwork or sloppiness might cause workers to unknowingly scoop up the urn with the dirt. The urn would then end up in the landfill.


The burial records for grave 4791. It says workers found a “body there” when digging in what was supposed to be an empty plot.

Salon previously reported on cases where the cemetery also found unknown, unmarked remains in what were supposed to be empty graves. In those previous cases, cemetery officials left the plots unmarked, with no headstone at all — not even one marked as unknown. Workers unexpectedly discovered caskets in graves that were supposed to be empty in May 2003 and then again in January 2009. (Cemetery officials now say they know the identity of the remains in those two graves by having studied burial paperwork from surrounding graves — though they have resisted doing any digging to be sure.)


A photo of Arlington’s dirt landfill recently. It’s located just southwest of where it was in 2002.

These kinds of mishaps are unlikely at other, similar-size cemeteries that years ago computerized operations and track grave locations via satellite. Arlington still conducts 30 burials a day with a flurry of paper that sometime goes missing, despite spending more than $5 million over the past decade in failed attempts to computerize operations there.

In the meantime, no one knows how common these burial mishaps and urn troubles are. The total number of urns that have ended up in the dirt landfill at Arlington is unknown. The total number of burial screw-ups hidden beneath headstones labeled “Unknown” is also unclear. And the total number of unknown remains underneath patches of empty grass at Arlington, with no headstone at all, also remains a mystery.


The large, brownish plot north of the structures and against the highway in this Google Earth image shows Project 90 land 17 days after an urn was found there in 2002, apparently in the light brown landfill near the center of the plot.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>