North Dakota’s Veterans Cemetery conducted a record 671 burials last year, up from an average of 550, and it’s not slowing down.
“On the average for the month of June, I perhaps do 65 burials, and we already are only halfway through the month and on the calendar and completed burials I’m at 80 already.”
Director Pamela Helbling-Schaefer says the pandemic, which peaked in North Dakota last year, is impacting burials today.
“I feel a lot of COVID aftermath, I feel a lot of folks hung onto the remains, we’re doing a lot of cremation burials right now,” Helbling-Schaefer said.
But the cemetery’s free burials of veterans spouses and dependents is adding to that number, too. A 2019 law began covering costs for the burials of eligible loved ones in March of last year, and it received continued funding this legislative session.
“The majority of the veterans interred in this cemetery, their spouses in a lot of cases paid just as tough if not tougher price than they did,” Honor Guard Member Ron Crouse said.
He served in the Marine Corps for 20 years, and was away from family for long stretches.
“My wife was here in Mandan raising kids, maintaining a household. She had the tough job,” Crouse said. “My being overseas while her and my family were here was without a doubt tougher on her than it was on me.”
So far, 257 spouses and dependents have been buried with the $550 fee waived. The bill that made that possible was brought by Belcourt legislator and Vietnam veteran Richard Marcellais.
“I was in the service from 1968 to 71 and I served in Vietnam as a communications specialist with the US Army,” Marcellais said.
Marcellais’s dad and six uncles all served in the military, too, so he’s familiar with the strain service can take on a family.
“I’m sure my wife was wondering if I was going to be back or not after being in Vietnam. A lot of the families found out that their loved ones didn’t come back, and that’s a hardship on the family overall, and I felt, why put another $550 on them, why not waive, because of all the sacrifices they made for the veteran.”
The burial fee when the cemetery first opened in 1992 was $150, before creeping up to $300 and eventually the $550 that it was before the waiver.
The new funding approved this past year for the benefit to continue will take effect Aug. 1 and provide $200,000 for the next two years.