April 27, 2006

Veterans' cemeteries: an inspiration of place

  • Terrain, plantings and built elements must be incorporated into the design to create scale and interest in a large open space.

    Photo by Dixi Carrillo/EDAW
    EDAW worked with Weiss/Manfredi Architects to design the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

    For centuries, cemeteries have played an important role in landscape architecture. Nineteenth century rural romantic cemeteries provided some of the most significant designed open space of the period.

    Today, cemeteries are filled with symbolism that recognizes the value of individuals and reflects our cultural beliefs. A cemetery can be a place for private reflection and grief, remembrance and respect. A veterans' cemetery has additional significance as a place to memorialize and honor the lives and service of veterans.

    The National Cemetery Administration was established in 1920 to fund national cemeteries. Military service members, their spouses and under-aged dependents are entitled to a place in a veterans' cemetery and to a military style burial.

    Demand for cemeteries is at its highest point since the Civil War, due in part to the aging population of Korean and Vietnam War veterans. Based on recent census data, annual veteran deaths are expected to peak at 620,000 in 2008.

    Demand for gravesites is outpacing the number of spaces available in national cemeteries. The Cemetery Grants Program was established in 1978 to assist states by providing funding for state cemeteries in areas where national cemeteries cannot satisfy burial needs.

    The cemetery grants can be used to fund design and construction of new or expanded facilities, but are not available for maintenance and operation or purchase of the land required for the facility. Ultimately, state legislatures must authorize the cemetery and dedicate funds to the Veterans' Administration to establish and operate the cemetery.

    The Veterans' Administration has awarded 140 grants totaling more than $215 million to establish, expand or improve 62 veterans' cemeteries in 32 states and Guam, providing opportunities for landscape architecture firms to plan and design these facilities.

    EDAW recently completed a design for the Western Montana State Veterans' Cemetery in Missoula and conducted a feasibility study for a cemetery in Eastern Washington. In addition to the work done by EDAW's Seattle office, other EDAW offices have designed for the expansion and creation of numerous veterans' cemeteries and memorials. Working closely with Weiss/Manfredi Architects, EDAW designed the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

    Finding inspired solutions

    Image courtesy EDAW
    Veterans' cemeteries often contain significant architectural or landscape features that give identity to a site, such as these planned for the Western Montana State Veterans' Cemetery.

    Cemeteries established under the grant program must conform to the standards and guidelines pertaining to site selection, planning and construction established by the Veterans Administration.

    All veterans' cemeteries are designed to function in the same way in order to accommodate a standard set of military ceremonies and customs. The challenge in designing a veterans' cemetery is to find a solution uniquely inspired by place. The solution must adhere to a standard program and elements should be sited and designed to take advantage of their context.

    Terrain and plantings are critical components in cemetery design and when used effectively, establish a character for the site and provide scale and interest appropriate for the use. Important components of the cemetery include the entry or gateway, a flag assembly area, internment areas and a memorial walk.

    The main entry of a veterans' cemetery often contains a significant architectural or landscape feature that gives identity to a site. This feature should speak to the local vernacular, pay homage to a significant historical military facility or set the tone for a simple, natural elegance through the use of carefully designed plantings. The entry feature establishes an architectural and landscape character that is reflected in other features throughout the cemetery.

    The American flag is a source of symbolism for service members and their survivors and is the most important feature in a veterans' cemetery. The flag assembly area is often centrally located in the cemetery and set within a formal lawn with carefully designed perimeter plantings. For example, in the Western Montana State Veterans' Cemetery, the assembly area was located to take advantage of its surrounding context and plantings were designed to create framed views of distant mountain ranges.

    A formally designed plaza located next to the lawn provides a place for event speakers, an assembly and a 40-piece band. Individual military service flags, often located within the plaza, are carefully arranged in order of the establishment of the division of military service.

    Gravesites — and the rhythm created by the orderly alignment of their headstones — are the most iconic features in a veteran's cemetery. At an individual level, the military headstone is a simple, elegant marble marker. When seen in mass, the order and tidiness remind us of the power and protection provided by the military and the significance of an individual's commitment.

    Clearly separated from the internment areas, a memorial walkway provides a place for memorials and monuments donated by eligible veterans' organizations and individuals. The memorial walkway is created through the placement of trees and ornamental shrubs for a more contemplative, garden-like setting.

    Rising to the occasion

    Cemetery design offers a unique opportunity for landscape architects to use their understanding of form and scale to enhance a natural landscape and to evoke emotions. Design for cemeteries involves the artful manipulation of terrain, plantings, and built elements to create scale and interest in a large open space.

    As demand for space in veterans' cemeteries increases, landscape architects will be called upon to assist states in locating and designing these significant national shrines.

    Marilee Stander, ASLA, is a landscape architect and associate in EDAW's Seattle office.

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