WASHINGTON — On a blisteringly cold day just 3 miles from the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Steve Stivers witnessed six years of work become a reality.
Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican who has served more than 30 years in the Ohio Army National Guard, watched as Arlington National Cemetery officials dedicated the "Place of Remembrance," a resting place to inter the partial, unidentified remains of those who died while serving in the U.S. armed services.
No remains have been interred yet. But Stivers, who began pushing for the tomb in 2011 after reading news stories about the Dover Air Force Base mortuary sending cremated veterans’ remains to a Maryland landfill, took comfort in knowing that future cremated remains would have a place of rest.
"It felt great to know that there is now a very honorable place for these remains to go," he said.
Stivers was horrified about stories that unidentified cremated remains had been sent to a landfill. He and his staff came up with a remedy: a tomb to hold such remains — a place that could accept new remains long after Stivers left Congress.
He first introduced a bill in May 2012; in September, another attempt passed the House. Even as it worked its way through the Senate, the cemetery's superintendent and Stivers kept talking. Finally, the superintendent decided to proceed regardless of whether the Senate had acted.
"It wasn’t about passing a bill," Stivers said. "It was about making it happen."
More practical issues were at play as well. Arlington National Cemetery is quickly running out of space. Storing cremated remains of unknown service members together, Stivers said, made more sense than burying each set of commingled fragments in a separate grave.
Tucked in a corner of the cemetery, not far from the columbarium — a wall holding cremated remains of other veterans — the tomb is simple and reminiscent of a cairn, a pile of rocks like those often serving as a tomb. Underneath the cairn, a humidity-controlled vault will hold the cremated remains. Above it, those visiting can sit on a bench with a full view of the site and the graves that lie beyond it.
During a 15-minute ceremony Wednesday, military representatives blessed the tomb with Hebrew, Catholic and Protestant prayers. They played taps. And one cemetery representative pulled Stivers aside and told him that the place of remembrance he proposed would be accepting remains for 100 or possibly 200 years to come.
Stivers was overwhelmed.
"It feels like I made a difference, and that feels great."
Jessica Wehrman is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch.