ANNAPOLIS – Arlington National Cemetery’s perfect rows of white gravestones were completely covered with snow by Wednesday afternoon, but funerals for America’s fallen servicemen and women continued.
The cemetery — usually open 365 days a year — has been closed to the public all week because of two snow storms that hit the Washington area in the last week, said John C. Metzler, the cemetery’s superintendent. Fifteen funerals scheduled for Wednesday and another 15 scheduled for Thursday were rescheduled for later dates. But the choice is up to the families, he said.
The ice has made the cemetery’s roads too dangerous for horses and ceremonial marchers, and snow has covered the gravesites. So the funerals this week — 19 Monday, 13 Tuesday, three Wednesday and eight Thursday — were moved indoors.
Among those buried this week was Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek, 25, of Westwood, N.J., who was laid to rest at Arlington on Monday afternoon. Tuesday, more than 600 people processed from Frederick for the funeral of Marine Sgt. David Smith, also 25.
Both men were killed in Afghanistan last month.
Enlisted Marines killed in action can have a platoon of marchers at their funeral, signifying the Marines they served with, said Gunnery Sgt. William J. Dixon, funeral director for Marine Barracks Washington. The horse-drawn caisson that typically carries their casket dates back to the Civil War, when the ammunition wagons were used to transport bodies from the battlefield, Dixon said.
The two Marines’ funerals did include standard military honors: a bugler, firing party, Marine Corps body bearers and color guard. But the conditions were too dangerous for the marchers, the horses and the President’s Own Marine Corps Band, Dixon said.
“We apologized to the family, and they understood,” Dixon said.
Cemetery officials did dig a path through the snow for a memorial service for a Medal of Honor recipient from the Spanish-American War, said cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst. But the snow was knee- or thigh-deep in most areas.
“The military is providing the honors it is able to provide, given the circumstances,” Horst said.
Most of the funerals that were rescheduled were for retired or former service members whose families were not able to make it to Washington for ceremonies.
Wednesday, Metzler said the snow was covering roads quicker than crews could clear it. In his 19 years with the cemetery, he said it has been closed to visitors very rarely. The last time there was anything close to these conditions was 1996, he said.
“We always stay open and will conduct the services. It really is the family’s call,” he said.
The cemetery would only be closed to funerals if not enough employees could get there to perform the services, Metzler said.
“Fortunately, that’s never happened,” he said.
And no amount of severe weather can deter the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Horst said. The Old Guard continues to stand guard.