When the federal government looked to the states to help ease the demands on national veterans cemeteries, Maryland took the lead and developed a model network of scenic graveyards across the state.
Now the Maryland program is the busiest in the country, accounting for 40 percent of all the burials in the nation's federally aided state veterans cemeteries. And, with more World War II veterans reaching advanced age, the costs of Maryland's $1.5 million-a-year program are growing.
Although there are about 36,000 unused spaces in the state's five veterans cemeteries, the biggest, Garrison Forest in Owings Mills, is expected to run out of developed sites by 1993. A $7.5 million development of 11,000 sites at the facility has been delayed for at least another year by the state's fiscal troubles. Under the matching program, the federal government splits 50-50 the cost of developing cemeteries, but leaves maintenance to the states.
Meanwhile, demand for spaces is growing, pushing the number of burials in Maryland past 2,300 last year. That is twice as many as in the second most active state, New Jersey.
Maryland could look to reduce the costs of its program by limiting eligibility as some other states have, suggests a budget analyst for the General Assembly.
In a report to the House subcommittee on Education and Human Resources, the analyst conceded that limiting eligibility "would significantly alter the focus of Maryland's program," but he said some new limits "may be desirable."
For example, Maryland's rules provide for a free burial for anyone who was honorably discharged from military service and has met certain residency and active duty requirements. Spouses are also eligible, as are any National Guard members and reservists called up for Desert Storm, even if they are deactivated before they meet the minimum length of duty requirement.
Unlike Maryland, some states charge for spouses or reserve their cemeteries for wartime veterans or residents of veterans homes. Also, Maryland's program, unlike those of some other states, allows veterans to be signed up prior to their death. Although no specific space is set aside, the reservation system is cumbersome and costly, the analyst said.
Members of the House subcommittee, however, said they are not planning to change the program this year, in part because they are reluctant to cut veterans benefits during wartime.
"We are aware of the context in which we make these decisions," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-City, chairman of the subcommittee.
Robert E. Barron, director of the Maryland Veterans Service Program, said he would oppose changes in the eligibility criteria, which are based on the rules for national cemetery burial. Preregistering is easier on the families, and differentiating between peace- and wartime veterans would slight the soldiers who maintained the peace, he said.
Carl Thomas, state adjutant of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said a veteran's right to be buried with his comrades should not be infringed upon. "I don't think it should be limited," Thomas said.
National veterans cemeteries were first established during the Civil War to accommodate combat deaths; the state veterans cemeteries are largely an extension of the federal cemetery program. Soldiers killed in action are still eligible for the veterans cemeteries, but the vast majority of those buried in these cemeteries did not die in combat.
Since the federal government launched its State Cemetery Grant program in 1980, Maryland has received $2.8 million of the $25 million in federal grants -- including three of the first four grants.
"For awhile, we thought of calling it the Maryland State Cemetery program," joked Harold F. Graber, director of the grants program for the Veterans Administration in Washington.
Other states with active national cemeteries still bury more veterans -- one facility in New York conducts up to 90 interments a day. But Maryland's two national cemeteries have been filled for years. That fact, along with the large number of active and retired military people in the state, has created the big demand for the state's facilities.
Although Barron estimates there are half a million veterans in the state now, he said the state cemeteries "have plenty of space. It will be many years before we fill up."
In addition to Garrison Forest, the state runs cemeteries in Hurlock on the Eastern Shore, Crownsville in Anne Arundel County, Rocky Gap in Western Maryland, and Cheltenham in Prince George's County.
Who is eligible for burial in a Maryland veterans cemetery:
* Member of the armed services, or spouse, who served active, federal duty prior to 1980; if since 1980, must have served 24 months of active duty or for as long as called (Desert Storm veterans will be eligible).
* Received an honorable discharge.
* Resident of Maryland at the time of entry into the armed services, or upon death or for 20 years during lifetime.