National Cemetery staff cuts mean fewer burials
DANVILLE — Burials at Danville National Cemetery are getting a little more difficult to arrange.
Due to staff reductions, cemetery officials recently cut back to one traditional burial — at 1 p.m. — and one cremation a day.
It's caused scheduling difficulties for loved ones of deceased veterans and, at times, caused backups in burials.
Ralph Reed, who's in charge of the honor guard at American Legion Post 210 in Danville, said a family of a veteran had his funeral on a Friday, but they couldn't bury him that same day due to the new policy.
The graveside service took place the following Wednesday.
"It's a nuisance. It's really affecting the funeral home directors and families," Reed said. "It's a mess."
Peter Young with the National Cemetery Administration under the Department of Veterans Affairs oversees the operation at Danville National Cemetery, where one of four employees recently retired and another worker resigned. Those positions are not being filled, and Young said the cemetery administration plans to contract out the work, which includes caring for the cemetery grounds as well as preparing for burials.
Young, who is based at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Joliet, said if the Danville cemetery gets more than one request for a burial in a day, staff will take such situations under consideration on a case-by-case basis.
"We are doing the best we can," said Young, who sent one of his workers at Abraham Lincoln to Danville this week to help out. "We will work with people. We want to accommodate everyone, but I also have to look at the staff I have."
Young said officials at a higher level are handling the gathering of bids for contract work, with a target start date of August. Even with a contractor, Young said he doesn't know if the new policy of one burial and one cremation per day will change.
Brad Tucker with Sunset Funeral Home and Cremation Center said initially the new policy was one burial at 1 p.m. each day. He said the cemetery began allowing a second if it was a cremation burial.
Tucker said the old policy allowed up to several burials a day — one at the top of each hour between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Soon after the change, he said, the funeral home had to hold off on one graveside service for a week. Families must sometimes decide, he explained, if they want to delay the funeral until a burial time is open or go ahead with the funeral and delay burial.
Young said one burial a day shouldn't be a problem in Danville, where on average there are about three a week. Also, he said, there are open time slots that are passed over because a family wants a certain day of the week.
But in April, Young said the rate of burials more than doubled.
"It became a scramble then. But for Danville, that's a lot," said Young, who doesn't anticipate another situation like April.
Reed said the American Legion Post 210 alone has done 74 burials at the Danville cemetery this year and, in his experience, up to five a week doesn't make sense. He said his honor guard has three this week alone, and in the past, it wasn't unusual for them to do more than one in a day.
He said the honor guard doesn't care what time the burials are held, although 1 p.m. this time of year is high on heat and humidity. That can take a toll on the older set.
"It's just not working out right," Reed said.
Young said contracting out work is a trend at national cemeteries. At Abraham Lincoln, for example, the mowing, trimming and head-stone setting is done through private contracts.
Once a contractor is in place in Danville, Young said the two employees left will remain. But if one retires, that position may not be filled. But there will always be a cemetery representative, he said, which is the position currently held by Rudi Shelton at the Danville cemetery.
Shelton said a new section of the cemetery has been opened and grave liners are being installed, making the burial process more efficient. Shelton said they are also raising and re-aligning the grave markers and putting new sod in those areas.
Young said once a contractor is hired, the winning bidder will do the mowing and trimming and headstone setting and dig and back fill the graves, but a cemetery staff member will always be there to ensure all is going correctly.
"From the public's standpoint, they won't see any difference," Young said of the changes.