Thirty-four hundred crypts are being installed and once that’s all done, burials will simply involve moving the topsoil and lifting the lid up.
Salisbury National Cemetery is part of a system of such military burial sites throughout the United States. In ground crypts — 1,500 per acre — are being installed, ironically, to expand the life expectancy of the cemetery. Conventional grave sites are five by 10-foot plots which, if it is to be for a veteran and spouse, the grave will be dug seven feet deep into which a vault will be placed and then when the spouse dies the grave will be reopened and the vault for the spouse placed on top to close it up.
With this new crypt project everything is going to be installed beforehand. Thirty four hundred crypts are being installed and once that’s all done, burials will simply involve moving the topsoil and lifting the lid up. Currently the cemetery is using more than 800 sites per acre, so with this new development they’ll be gaining between 40 and 50 percent more space, according to John Spruyt. The new configuration will take up only three feet by eight feet of space as opposed to the current five by 10 feet of space in use.
“I’ve worked in cemeteries where burials were side by side,” explained Spruyt. “That arrangement is a great waste of space, not a perfect idea. All the cemeteries now are going to using crypts to conserve land.”
Salisbury National Cemetery also has another project going on, the installation of 1,000 above-ground niches for the cremation remains. These are contained in a wall with slots.
The company heading the project is U.S. Builders Group, Detroit. The Salisbury National Cemetery has a contracting officer based in Washington, D.C., overseeing the whole project. Spruyt oversees the entire Salisbury National Cemetery and is held accountable for what happens at the site.
“As long as the contractors and workers are respecting the visitors and the integrity of our funeral services, that’s what I’m concerned about,” added Spruyt. “My role here is to provide dignified burial for our veterans, making sure that none of the contractors interfere with that. There is a specific contracting officer that oversees the contract; I’m basically his eyes and ears because he’s up in Washington. I also make sure everything’s kept neat and clean — and visitors are not interfered with.”
Funeral services are conducted every hour on the hour so workers must work carefully around that schedule, according to Spruyt.
“They work around us,” added Spruyt. “We don’t work around them and they can work from dawn to dusk. They just started coming on site in December, but haven’t gone full force yet with excavating and all that. As spring and summer come around there will be more construction going on here.”
A main challenge is making sure that family funeral services proceed without any glitches due to the hectic construction about to start.
“That’s kind of hard. They’ve got to shut down their equipment while we’re having a service. Some days we’ll have five services, others we’ll have just one and some days we have none.”
The project should be completed within one year with the expansion in place by December 2012. All the work should be cleaned up by that time.
The original cemetery is on the other side of town, some two miles from this site. The part where Spruyt is situated opened in 1999, though it is part of the original cemetery and located directly behind the VA hospital.
“If the VA hadn’t acquired this land, this cemetery would have closed altogether. The old Confederate prisoner of war camp at Salisbury was originally a cornfield and that’s where they buried the dead from the prison. Supposedly 11,000 troops were buried in 18 trenches over there. That is basically an open section marked on both ends by stones labeled ’unknown.’ They never excavated or exhumed any of those bodies. One trench was exhumed, the number of remains counted in that location and based on 18 trenches they came up with the 11,000 figure; nobody really knows the exact number. Some have come up with 4,000 and the highest estimate is 11,000.”
The community is a big advocate for the cemetery, especially the veterans in the area, according to Spruyt. Last fiscal year, which ended September 30, they buried more than 700 veterans and family members. Veterans and their spouses are eligible along with minor children under the age of 21 or under 23 years of age and pursuing a full-time course of instruction at an approved educational institution. But the majority of the burials done are for veterans and their spouses. The original cemetery across town consists of some 15 acres.
Steve Scott of U.S. Builders Group, is the superintendent onsite. U.S. Builders Group started in 1999 as a Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business. Though they started out with their main focus being interior finish contractors for the Southeast Michigan area, they’ve expanded their business to include many projects around the United States, including multiple general contractor projects from Michigan and Washington D.C. and even historic sites in Florida and Mississippi. Despite all these far-flung projects, the company has as its philosophy to remain customer-focused, giving each project the same attention to detail and quality treatment, no matter how large or small that project may be.
“There are some cemetery locations that U.S. Builders Group is involved in where there are up to 30 services per day and you really have to work around them,” said Scott. “But here at the Salisbury National Cemetery it’s not that busy. They average three services per day, usually Mondays and Fridays, with one or two on the weekdays between those two days so it’s not usually too bad here; services are not too long, maybe ten or fifteen minutes long.”
They have a flag system in place in which the cemetery will put up a little signal flag when the services first start.
Scott explained that they keep an eye out. “When we see that flag go up we shut all of our machinery right down,” he said.
“Then when work starts back up we don’t want to dig out more than we have to, so we do have one of the larger tracked hoe excavators on site. But the mini-excavators are our basic unit, what we really like to dig with around the edges of the crypt fields, that way we don’t have the big bucket on there and the big trench to fill back in.”
The soil on this site isn’t too bad, according to Scott. But he recently came from a job in Natchez, Miss., where the soil is extra silty and hard to compact. On the Salisbury National Cemetery job they have only five workers onsite right now. Eventually they will have concrete work, masonry work and other site work involved. Then they will pick up an additional 10 to 15 workers.
Scott’s company is a construction management company, basically arranging for other local subcontractors to do the work with their own equipment. They have nine months to finish this job.
“Construction workers are pretty used to working in bad weather so I’m confident we’ll be able to finish things up during that time. The weather here in North Carolina, overall seems pretty nice compared to Michigan.
“One of our biggest challenges is making sure we don’t have too much equipment on top of the crypt field. This is why we basically go with the minis and the smaller equipment to do our work. They have the requirement of a 12,000 pound axle load limit on top of the crypts. We were cautious with them. We’ll push dirt on them before we get machinery on top. If we get a bit extra we won’t use to big of a piece of equipment and make sure we have a good cushion underneath us. Usually we use rubber-tracked machinery; that seems to work the best and to spread the load out.
“Those crypts are pretty thin-walled concrete and if you hit them with a bucket they’re going to crack. You don’t want to do that. Also we were asked to clear a few trees which were on site as the roots cause havoc with the crypts, trying to get inside the crypts.”
Scott has worked on cemetery sites all around the country, including one at Natchez, Miss., where the burial ground is on a bluff 250 ft. above the Mississippi River. They also have had projects in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Illinois.
“I feel it’s an honor to work for the Veterans’ Administration at the cemeteries,” said Scott. “Some people ask me if it’s scary working at night in a cemetery, but I’m pretty used to it now. It doesn’t bother me at all. When we’re doing some heavy excavating and there are services during the day, it’s just a lot easier to come in at night and do the work.
“This cemetery is unique in being right next to a medical center and that facility has a lot of traffic associated with it. People are coming in and out of there all day long. It’s easier for us if we’ve got to haul dirt, to do that when there is little traffic around. It is just safer for everyone.”