CANTON, Ga. About 75 veterans and their families gathered under a pavilion Saturday for the first Memorial Day observance at the nation's newest national cemetery.
"To be able to honor the Georgia veterans who have wanted this for so long - it's been a great experience to help them," said Sandra Beckley, director of the Georgia National Cemetery.
Open since April 24, the $28 million cemetery already has had 176 burials of veterans who fought in conflicts from World War II to Vietnam, and more than 100 funerals have been scheduled through February.
Cemetery officials also are planning additional burials from other veterans' deaths this year, Beckley said.
The cemetery, about 35 miles north of Atlanta, is the newest of 123 cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and is intended to accommodate the graves of at least 68,000 veterans and their dependents over several decades.
Two other new cemeteries, in Solano County, Calif., and at Lake Worth, Fla., are expected to open by the end of the year. Congress passed laws in 1999 and 2003 to create these and nine other national cemeteries near areas with large veteran populations.
The national cemetery program dates to the height of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1862 recognizing that national cemeteries were needed "for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country."
In 1873, the program was expanded to include all honorably discharged veterans. It provides the grave site, a concrete grave liner, headstone and perpetual care of the grave. It also opens and closes the grave and gives the veteran's family a memorial certificate and U.S. flag.
Surveying the Georgia cemetery's lush green hills Saturday, Richard Weber smiled with anticipation at the thought of spending eternity here.
"I've made my arrangements," the 80-year-old World War II veteran and retired missionary said. "I look forward to being buried here."