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WEST POINT, N.Y. — The West Point Cemetery has taken in graduates of the Long Gray Line from the age of the cavalry charge to the dawn of drone strikes. Headstones etched with names such as Custer and Westmoreland stand near plots with freshly turned earth.
But after almost two centuries, the 12-acre cemetery is close to full.
The U.S. Military Academy and its graduates are taking steps to make more room with new niches for cremated remains and an eventual expansion of the burial grounds. The work will update a resting place for more than 8,000 people that is the most hallowed ground at the nation's the most venerable military academy.
“I would challenge you to find more valor in a smaller amount of space,” said cemetery administrator Kathleen Silvia, who noted that 16 Medal of Honor recipients were buried here.
Marquee names include Lt. Col. George Custer, U.S. commander in Vietnam Gen. William Westmoreland and — buried just this winter — Gulf War commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. But it's the rows of graves of never-famous soldiers that give the cemetery its quiet dignity.
Walking among the headstones recently, Silvia — who was among the first female West Point graduates in 1980 — points out Revolutionary War-era dead and stoops down to tidy the marker for a recently deceased colonel she admired.
Though a military cemetery since 1817, not all the graves are uniform. A few older ones are extravagant. The headstone of celebrated Army football coach Earl “Red” Blaik is shaped like football ready to be kicked off. Egbert Viele, a Civil War veteran, rests in a two-story pyramid guarded by two stone sphinxes. It is said that his fear of being entombed alive was so great that his mausoleum was rigged with a buzzer.
There is no record of it being used.
The grounds on a tree-sheltered promontory near New York's Hudson River are reserved for West Point graduates and cadets, soldiers who die while assigned to the academy, and immediate family members. While graves of famous alumni such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur are elsewhere, some 140 to 200 people are laid to rest here each year.
Some are old soldiers whose feelings for West Point never faded. Vietnam veteran and retired Lt. Col. Freed Lowrey, a 1967 graduate, said he will be buried here among the historic figures and his classmates who were killed in that war.
“I want to be among soldiers. I want to be among people of my own kind who have served and done so much for the nation and have sacrificed so much,” Lowrey said. “I could be in Arlington, I could be in any national cemetery, but this is — and I'm not a religious person — I mean, West Point's almost my soul.”
Mourners at Schwarzkopf's service in February were told how crucial the academy was to his life and values. On a recent chilly Friday, the cremated remains of Air Force Maj. Gen. William Strong and his wife, Virginia, were buried here amid rifle volleys and a plaintive playing of taps. Strong, Class of 1940, had a distinguished career in the Air Force. Still, he and his wife decided to be buried near his father and brothers at West Point.
Lowrey, who returned to live in nearby Fishkill, now works for the West Point Association of Graduates, which has raised more than $1.5 million for a double-sided wall with niches for cremated remains. While a space beneath the cemetery's Old Cadet Chapel has enough room to handle additional cremated remains for about a decade, plots for outdoor interments of cremated remains are expected to be depleted in about two years.
Silvia expects the first sections of the wall, which will follow a circular walkway in the center of the cemetery, will be in place by that time.
Farther down the road is a plan to expand the burial ground to a patch of adjacent land, since that option could be depleted within five years. Silvia figures that would allow another decade of burials.
Silvia said the situation boils down to basic math. Academy graduating classes can now number around 1,000, much larger than generations ago. Although more than 90 graduates have died in the decade-plus of conflict since the Sept. 11 attacks, it's unclear how many are interred here.
Silvia expects construction on the cremation niche wall to begin this spring. She also is enthused about plans for a smartphone app that will allow people to punch in the name of a person buried here and locate his grave.
“These are lifelong friends of ours, and it's a very special honor for me to provide the final salute,” she said.