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“We’re losing a World War II veteran or two every week,” a resident of the Armed Forces Retirement Home told me this morning.
But if that’s true, the dead aren’t being buried across the street. That’s where the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery sits. (The name of the residence changed, the affiliated cemetery’s didn’t.)
The Petworth cemetery has been accepting bodies of military dead since August of 1861, three years before the more famous Arlington Cemetery opened for business.
And after all these years, the soldiers’ cemetery on Rock Creek Church and Harewood Rds NW is almost filled up: 14,420 bodies have been placed in 13,893 graves, according to cemetery records. (Families and couples occasionally pile onto each other in the same plot.)
“We’ve only got 121 slots left,” says Dr. David Moshier, the caretaker of the cemetery.
Because of the space limitations, since 1996, only current and former AFRH residents are accepted for burial.
Yet, the remaining spaces are hardly going fast, says Moshier, who lives on the grounds.
There were no burials here today, and only one in the past two weeks: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. (retired) George Richer, a 95-year old tenant of AFRH, was the cemetery’s most recent acquisition.
There was no landscaping scheduled today, either. And, because most of the dead are at this National Cemetery are long, long dead, on most days folks don’t come by to lay flowers on any gravesites or mull over lost love or days gone by or whatever folks at cemeteries mull over.
I hung out at the cemetery for an hour, and no visitors came by. Only one car even came in through the front gate, but quickly turned right around and left.
Moshier says the only big day at the cemetery any more is Memorial Day. That’s because Maj. General John Logan, the Civil War hero and former federal legislator who gave us Decoration Day and formalized Memorial Day celebrations in this country – and who is the man behind Logan Circle — is buried here with his family.
Every Memorial Day, Logan’s fans hold a small service at his gravesite. As these sites go, it’s quite a sight: The Logans get the only mausoleum on the grounds. I’ve lived in apartments much smaller than their burial housing, truth be told.
But, nobody stopped by to see Logan’s death digs during my visit.
So what’s an average day like at this cemetery, I ask Moshier: “The squirrels would make their rounds, maybe the raccoon would make a run at the garbage can,” he says. “I could go for a day here where even the phone is reasonably quiet.”
You want your cemeteries to be quiet, especially if you live on the grounds. But Moshier is a bit sad that his workplace doesn’t get more attention.
“It’s beautiful here,” he says. “I call this cemetery the best kept secret in Washington.”