Arlington works to correct mistakes of its past

ARLINGTON, Va. -- New management has done much to restore order at America's premiere military cemetery, four years after revelations of misplaced remains and misidentified graves.

The day begins with the horses: washed down and shined up -- right down to their hooves and the brass on their harnesses. Theirs is sacred duty, part of a stately ritual of mourning and respect that dates back to the Civil War.

For the families, nothing else in the world matters that day. For the staff of Arlington National Cemetery, this is one of 20 burials that will take place in a four-hour period.

"It's important that the funeral processions do not cross each other, that the family feels that they're the only thing going on at that particular moment," says Renea Yates, who is in charge of each day's burials.

The burials are timed and mapped out with the aid of computers and GPS, part of a new electronic records keeping system that tracks more than a quarter million gravesites.

"All of these graves that are in gray are occupied; green is available," says Joe Alberti.

Alberti used to do it all by hand, recording burials on antiquated maps that had more in common with the Civil War than the information revolution.

Staff at Arlington work to ensure funeral processions do not cross each other. CBS News

On the map for Section 60, the site where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, the status of every grave site was denoted by an arcane system of dots and color shadings.

Patrick Hallinan, the cemetery's new director, faced a daunting task: searching Arlington's 624 acres to find and correct all the mistakes of the past.

"Going back and looking at all the records, all the gravesites, and making sure that information is accurate and validated," Hallinan says.

Now, before a grave is closed, the identity has been verified three times.

"It's checked when the grounds crew opens the grave, it's checked when the cemetery representative prepares for the service, and it's checked again by two individuals before we close the grave," Yates says.

Then pictures of the headstone and its location are posted on Arlington's website, where the public can find them.

"I am extremely confident that everybody is where they belong," Hallinan says.

That would make Arlington, on its 150th anniversary, a cemetery worthy of the sacrifice of those who lie buried there.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.