Precast concrete manufacturers provide veterans cemeteries with quality, durable and effective solutions.
By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
There’s no mistaking a veterans cemetery. The perfectly aligned rows of headstones, the expertly manicured grass and a crisp American flag flowing in the wind are telltale signs of the reverence and respect the government places on the hallowed grounds. The precise and pristine upkeep are a final “Thank You” to those who served in the armed forces.
Although the above-ground aesthetics have remained relatively consistent for many decades, below grade, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has evolved the way it buries both caskets and urns. The changes ensure the burial process meets high expectations and that the 135 cemeteries are run efficiently.
Plotting the course
For many decades, the VA and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) would dig an 8-foot-deep hole as needed to place a vault. In some cases, it places a second vault on top for a spouse or dependent, which is known as a double-lawn crypt.
This method occasionally ran into issues depending on the soil type, water table depth, nearby vaults’ condition and other factors. It also was not a terribly efficient method. These concerns led to a shift in approach. The NCA now uses pre-placed precast concrete crypts it installs in large quantities, so the interment process only requires a small excavation.
Well before installation, the planning stage begins by crunching data and modelling expected future needs in various regions around the country. The VA places the precast vaults and crypts to meet a projected 10-15-year demand. It adds space either by expanding an existing cemetery or establishing a new one.
This analysis identified a demonstrated need for a new cemetery in Nebraska, which led to the dedication of the Omaha National Cemetery in 2016. The initial buildout included installing thousands of double-lawn precast vaults. The process was going so well, it soon led to a new approach for urns as well.
“During this project, we were so happy and had such great success with the double-lawn crypts – they actually pay for themselves over time and reduce labor and maintenance – that we decided to use the approach for the urns we had to bury.” said Andrew Walters, PE, with the NCA. “A lot of times, ashes are put into columbarium. But you can also put urns into the ground in a 4-foot-by-4-foot plot.”
Walters was tasked with the approach to bury urns. The result is a structure with a multi-component box base and a hatch where the urn is placed, as well as a riser feature that acts as a headstone support.
Increasing demand in Omaha
When the VA determines the need during an expansion, reality does not always match expectations. In Omaha, urn crypt demand has been particularly high, which led to a major expansion in 2019 into 2020. The urn crypts are only in use at six veterans cemeteries, which makes the work in Omaha fairly unique.
Although this particular product and approach are new, work at veterans cemeteries is anything but new for Wieser Concrete Products, headquartered in Maiden Rock, Wis. Company president Andy Wieser said the company has manufactured hundreds of thousands of vaults and crypts for veterans cemeteries since its first project with the VA in 2003.
With three of its plants nearly equidistant from Omaha, it came down to workload and floor space once it won the bid. Wieser Concrete started the project at its Roxana, Ill., plant and finished it up in Portage, Wis., to accommodate the timeline and each plant’s workload.
Each structure has multiple cavities for urns. The Roxana plant set up two forms that manufacture an 8-cavity design and one form for a 4-cavity design. Wieser Concrete partners with Lindsay Precast on VA projects. The forms were shipped to Wieser Concrete by Lindsay Precast and, with a few modifications, production was off and running. With double pours – Wieser Concrete poured forms in the morning, stripped around noon and then poured again – the plant was able to manufacture six pieces per day for a total of 40 cavities.
Wieser Concrete poured the boxes monolithically and added the previously cured risers – which will later hold the headstones in place – to the pour. The risers eliminate countless hours of future work straightening and realigning headstones.
The design also includes a 14-inch lid in the top of the box, which is later removed to place the urn. Finally, a plywood cover is added to the riser to ensure soil does not enter the crypt during backfilling operations.
Although it was Weiser Concrete’s first time manufacturing the urn crypts, Andy Wieser and his son Drew Wieser, general manager of the Roxana location, said the project went well. The plant used a 6,000 psi SCC mix design and had strict protocol from start to finish.
“There was a little bit of a learning curve because there is very little taper, and the bases are a big structure so it’s critical you strip them right – especially with double pouring them because we are stripping them fairly green,” Andy said.
“In addition to the hot water, we used an accelerator to double pour them,” Drew added. “We covered them with tarps, and we used cylinders to make sure we had the strength and that the timing was correct.”
With an 8-cavity unit weighing approximately 16,000 pounds, Wieser Concrete could haul 24 cavities per truck. In total, it delivered 3,264 cavities. Because the products have a thin wall, Wieser Concrete cushioned the lids to make sure they were not damaged in shipment and ensured straps were correctly placed to prevent damage.
In the field, the installers must handle them from the base section down through the lid. Wieser Concrete used sleeved, 2-foot-long coil bolts with swivel blocks that went into the bottom base. The first round was installed during the winter of 2019 and the second in the spring of 2020.
Resting in peace
Today, the scene at Omaha Veterans Cemetery is exactly what you would expect. Perfectly spaced and aligned headstones pay tribute to the nation’s heroes, which makes Andy Wieser proud.
“It’s an honor to work at a VA cemetery,” he said. “These are prestigious cemeteries, and it’s a privilege to work for our fallen heroes. These never come out of the ground, so it’s not just 100 years, it’s forever.
“People from the Federal government are out there and there’s a lot of respect there. They inspect your product and come to the plant – you’re working with some very respectable people.”
Walters said the NCA tried an alternative material, but that the precast concrete crypts provide the longevity it is looking for with a few other benefits based on the design of the structures.
“With concrete, you get the permanence of it, and we are in the forever business, so the preference is for precast concrete,” he said. “Plus, with the creation of a good SCC concrete to do these thin-wall concrete crypts, the quality of the crypts is just excellent, and the crypts keep the headstones in place, which is our brand. When you put an urn into the crypt and put the headstone in, it should never move so you have everything in line.”
For veterans, service in the armed forces is a source of great pride and for some it required the ultimate sacrifice. This fact is not lost on the employees of the VA, the NCA or those who work on these projects. From the permanence of the vaults and crypts below ground to the picturesque space above, their remains are paid the respect they deserve.
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s vice president of communications and public affairs.