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VA Military Funeral Ceremonies Banned Due To Coronavirus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The elements of military funerals are familiar - the grieving family, the volleys of rifle shots, the flag presented on behalf of a grateful nation. But for now, the VA has stopped military honor guards in its 142 national cemeteries because of the pandemic. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Salisbury, N.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The VA runs nearly all active national cemeteries except for a handful, like the Army-run Arlington, where the honor guards have new social distancing rules. But across the sprawling VA system, which holds nearly 135,000 burials a year, no more honor guards or ceremonies of any kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE APPROACHING)

PRICE: On a recent cloudy day at the Salisbury National Cemetery, Ivar Lonon cradles two white cardboard boxes. A tiny utility vehicle drives up with dirt and shovels in the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR OPENING)

PRICE: Men in work boots stand at the gravesite. Cemetery representative Sonya Leazer looks down at the boxes.

SONYA LEAZER: They're both labeled - right? - the boxes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

LEAZER: OK. So what they normally do, they'll - that plastic bag - they'll put one in each of them.

PRICE: One box holds the cremated remains of Ivar Lonon's father, veteran James Lonon. The other, those of his mother, Annie, who died earlier. Lonon hands the boxes one at a time to cemetery foreman Mike Moose. He slides them into plastic bags, and he zip-ties them shut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Lonon.

PRICE: Moose sinks to his knees, puts the boxes in the hole. The crew begins shoveling in the dirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREW SHOVELING)

PRICE: And that's it. It's about all the cemetery system can do for now.

Gregory Whitney runs the Salisbury National Cemetery. He says keeping employees and families safe has to be a priority.

GREGORY WHITNEY: We contact the funeral homes to let them know parties of 10 people or less with social distancing of six feet. Everybody knows times are changing, especially with deaths, you know, associated with the virus.

PRICE: The Lonon family had wanted more for James Lonon. He was just 18 when he was drafted into the Army and sent to fight in Europe during World War II. After the war, he joined the Air Force and served another 22 years, including a stint in Vietnam. He died at age 94.

James Lonon's niece, Laura Prince, had helped plan the gathering. She said Unc (ph), as she called him, would have been fine with the VA's practical approach. He was proud of his military service.

LAURA PRINCE: But proud in a self-deprecating, humble way. And he really didn't want a lot of fanfare, not that - I mean, it would have been really nice the other way. It would've been really nice, especially if some of us could've been there. But we will still honor him the next time we get together.

PRICE: So instead of a gaggle of nephews, nieces and grandchildren at graveside, there's just Ivar, his wife Paige and her small dog Niera. The VA says after the pandemic subsides, the Lonons can still have an honor guard ceremony. Ivar Lonon says his father would have understood. It's like in World War II, he says, when James Lonon was drafted. The whole country had to make sacrifices for the fight.

IVAR LONON: The fact that we can come back and do it at a later date, I think, heals a lot of those wounds.

PRICE: The crew tidies up the gravesite with a rake.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREW RAKING)

PRICE: Then they get back in the utility truck and leave. Ivar stands awhile and looks at their handiwork. Then he and his wife and Niera the dog walk up the hill to the parking lot. They climb in their SUV and drive away to rejoin a nation on pause; a nation that is grateful, even if it can't say so right now.

For NPR News, this is Jay Price in Salisbury, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.