Arlington National Cemetery Will Run Out Of Burial Space By 2040

Absent changes in policy, the nation's most hallowed military cemetery will run out of space in two decades.

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery are warning that they will run out of burial space at Arlington National Cemetery within 22 years unless standards for who will be eligible for internment there are changed:

Military officials are considering changing the rules about who is eligible to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery amid concerns that burial space will run out within the next 22 years.

The cemetery will be closed for new interments by 2040 if current policies continue, said the executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, Karen Durham-Aguilera, at a congressional hearing on Thursday.

“A veteran from the 1991 Gulf War who lives to his or her normal life expectancy will not be able to be interred at Arlington,” Durham-Aguilera said.

With limited extra space available in the D.C. metropolitan area, the best solution is to tighten rules about who is eligible for burial, Durham-Aguilera said.

The Army’s testimony acknowledged the emotional impact of barring some service members from being buried at Arlington, which is the final resting place of more than 400,000 Americans. But with 150 funeral services every week and 3.3 million visitors every year, the pacing is stretching staff and land resources, Durham-Aguilera said.

Necessary changes include restricting eligibility to retired veterans or service members who receive a Silver Star or above, were wounded, killed in action or otherwise died while serving on active duty, Durham-Aguilera testified.

Currently, most military members who served at least one day of active duty or anyone eligible for retirement pay, plus their spouses, children or dependent adult children, are eligible.

The public is overwhelmingly supportive of Arlington National Cemetery continuing to actively bury former service members, according to a survey of 28,000 people conducted by cemetery leadership.

The survey polled opinions on whether different groups should be eligible.

Overall, 91 percent of people support those with Medals of Honor or who were killed in action to remain eligible.

About 75 percent surveyed responded that prisoners of war and those with valor awards or Purple Hearts should also be included, which would extend the active life of the current cemetery grounds to 2200.

About 35 percent of people reported that military retirees should be eligible.

About 13 percent of people polled didn’t want substantial changes.

John Towles, the deputy director for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), rejected most restrictions.

“In the end, the men and women who served this national honorably, as well as their family members, deserve to be laid to rest in hallowed ground,” he wrote in congressional testimony.

Under current policy, the list of people who are eligible for burial at the nation’s most hallowed military cemetery is detailed in a regulation adopted by the Department of Defense, and is actually surprisingly extensive:

• Any active duty member of the Armed Forces (except those members serving on active duty for training only).

• Any veteran who is retired from active military service with the Armed Forces.

• Any veteran who is retired from the Reserves is eligible upon reaching age 60 and drawing retired pay; and who served a period of active duty (other than for training).

• Any former member of the Armed Forces separated honorably prior to Oct. 1, 1949, for medical reasons and who was rated at 30 percent or greater disabled effective on the day of discharge.

• Any former member of the Armed Forces who has been awarded one of the following decorations:
— Medal of Honor.
— Distinguished Service Cross (Navy Cross or Air Force Cross).
— Distinguished Service Medal.
— Silver Star.
— Purple Heart.

• The president of the United States or any former president of the United States.

• Any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and who held any of the following positions:

• An elective office of the U.S. government.

• Office of the Chief Justice of the United States or of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

• An office listed, at the time the person held the position, in 5 USC 5312 or 5313 (Levels I and II of the Executive Schedule).

• The chief of a mission who was at any time during his/her tenure classified in Class I under the provisions of Section 411, Act of 13 Aug. 1946, 60 Stat. 1002, as amended (22 USC 866) or as listed in
State Department memorandum dated March 21, 1988.

• Any former prisoner of war who, while a prisoner of war, served honorably in the active military, naval, or air service, whose last period of military, naval or air service terminated honorably and who died on or after November 30, 1993.

• The spouse, widow or widower, minor child, or permanently dependent child, and certain unmarried adult children of any of the above eligible veterans.

• The widow or widower of:
— A member of the Armed Forces who was lost or buried at sea or officially determined to be missing in action.
— A member of the Armed Forces who is interred in a US military cemetery overseas that is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
— A member of the Armed Forces who is interred in Arlington National Cemetery as part of a group burial.
— The surviving spouse, minor child, or permanently dependent child of any person already buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
— The parents of a minor child, or permanently dependent child whose remains, based on the eligibility of a parent, are already buried in ANC. A spouse divorced from the primary eligible, or widowed and remarried, is not eligible for interment.

• Provided certain conditions are met, a former member of the Armed Forces may be buried in the same grave with a close relative who is already buried and is the primary eligible.

• Additionally the cremated remains of an honorably discharged veteran may be placed in the columbarium.

To be honest, in reading the regulation linked above and other information regarding eligibility for internment at Arlington I came away as quite surprised. Like many Americans I suspect, I had long believed that internment was significantly more limited and meant to include persons who were killed in action, who had earned high honors such as the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, or the Bronze Star, who had served with distinction in some other respect, or who had served in a high position in government such as Presidents and some members of Congress (see i.e., Robert F. Kennedy and former Senator Ted Kennedy). Instead, it would appear that nearly anyone who had served in the military and been honorably discharged is potentially eligible to be buried at Arlington even if they never served in combat. Potentially, this could have meant that my Dad would have been eligible to request burial at Arlington even though his five or so years in the Air Force involved serving on bases in the United States and, for a time, in Libya, during the late 1950s and early 60s, although this was never an option that our family never seriously considered.

On paper at least, it seems clear that there is room to pare down this list so that Arlington can continue to inter veterans and those killed in action for a much longer period than currently contemplated. One way to do that would be to strictly limit eligibility to highly decorated veterans, such as recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and other similar awards for bravery above and beyond the call of duty as well as those actually killed in action during a combat situation. Other potentially eligible persons could be former Presidents, members of the Supreme Court, and members of Congress who served in the military prior to being elected to office. Additionally, the Federal Government could consider opening new military cemeteries around the country that would be open to a broader segment of former service members. One example of this can be found in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which is located in Hawaii. Yet another option would be to add more space to mausoleums at Arlington for the internment of cremated remains. A final option would be for the Army to acquire more land adjacent to the cemetery to allow for expansion, an option that is apparently being considered. At the very least, though, it seems as though there is some good reason to tighten up the criteria for eligibility for internment at Arlington, especially given the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of combat and non-combat veterans from the Vietnam War Era forward who will be nearing the end of the lives in the future. Absent such changes or new land acquisitions, though, it’s clear that space will run out in Arlington sooner rather than later. We ought to consider tightening the standards just a bit to make sure that date is as far in the future as possible.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    When I visited my mother’s family graveyard in Ireland, it was in the churchyard and surrounded by a small wall. Inside the wall was consecrated ground. Outside was, well outside. Most of the graves were topped by markers that had multiple names on them, albeit all from the same family. In other words, people were buried on top of each other. I don’t about Arlington, but this wouldn’t work in most US cemeteries due to our frankly bizarre practice of embalming people and then burying them in a sealed metal coffin inside a concrete vault. What’s that about anyway?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Tightening the rules of eligibility makes sense to me. At a minimum, internment should be reserved to honorably discharged veterans; it’s absurd to bury spouses and children there. I’m fine for making it only for war heroes and retirees but I’m fine with the extended list of veterans who went on to serve in high public office.

  3. @James Joyner:

    it’s absurd to bury spouses and children there

    I agree with this, and it wasn’t until several years ago that I even realized that spouses were eligible for interment at Arlington. I suppose much of the reason for that lie in our own cultural traditions regarding burial and the idea that married couples should be buried together, but if that’s what families want then they should choose to have both spouses interred somewhere other than a place where space is so obviously limited.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: @Doug Mataconis: I don’t know about Arlington but I suspect the practice is the same there as at Jefferson Barracks Nat Cem: The spouse is buried in the same grave as the vet, his/her name goes on the back of the tombstone. Or at least that is the way it worked for my parents and several others I have seen.

    As to the children… befuddled shaking of head.

  5. Kathy says:

    Can it be expanded by purchasing adjacent or nearby land?

    The old Jewish cemetery in Mexico City did just that. Though it’s odd, as parts are in different blocks. Often the prayer service is in one block, and the burial in another.

  6. Moosebreath says:


    Alternatively, they could do what the Jewish cemetery in Prague has done. Every few generations, they added a few feet of dirt and therefore got new space to bury the dead. “[I]f necessary, a new layer of soil was heaped up on the available area. For this reason, there are places where as many as twelve layers now exist.”

  7. @Kathy:

    The Army is apparently in negotiations to acquire land adjacent to the cemetery but that would only be a temporary solution at best. As it is, Arlington is in the middle of what has become a heavily built-up area and the possibilities for expansion are becoming increasingly limited.

  8. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Joyner: Your solution is along the same lines as my own. I think it could realistically be limited to honorably discharged veterans, etc., and maybe, *possibly* spouses (given the cultural traditions here), but definitely not children.

    I do feel that those who served honorably should retain the Arlington option if they so choose. Now most of those I know who served and were eligible preferred to be buried locally – I have only one relative at Arlington – in part because our various family branches wanted to be able to visit and care for the graves and no one lives on the East Coast.

    It is odd that we take up so much space to be buried, though, isn’t it? My preference is cremation, and I see no need to have the resulting ashes buried or interred somewhere. But in my non-belief system, when you’re dead, you’re dead.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Blue Galangal: Yes, the whole burial ritual is a separate topic. And I get the cultural rationale behind burying a husband and wife together. My view, though, is if you want that, do it at a local cemetery. If you want to be buried in a national military cemetery—indeed the national military cemetery—it should be just the veteran. My own service was sufficiently short and indistinguished that there’s no rationale for interring me at Arlington. But it’s truly bizarre that most combat veterans are ineligible and yet relatives who never served are.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Moosebreath: That’s really interesting. But not very practical for most sites.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis: You can buy built-up land, demolish any structures, and use the land for burials. But of course there are problems with that approach.

    Eventually everyone will run out of room to bury more bodies. There is a limit on the size of the planet, but no limit to the number of people. That’s why ancient graves and cemeteries keep being found all over the world.

  12. Tyrell says:

    I am not familiar with the surrounding property and environs of Arlington, but one option would be for the government to buy up more land.