About eight years ago, when the volunteer group in charge of organizing events at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery was just getting started, the only meeting space they had was a file room inside the cemetery’s small 1,300-square-foot administration building.
That was fine when there were five or six people showing up. But as the group blossomed, and more and more community groups wanted to help out at events such as the annual Memorial Day ceremony, maneuvering around the tiny room got a little tricky.
"The file room was a table with a bunch of files around it and it’s really pretty hard to get much more than eight people crammed into that thing. It made it interesting when somebody had to come in and go through a file during a meeting," said Bob Garlow, chairman of both the volunteer group and the cemetery’s advisory committee.
The 79-acre cemetery is located on the southern edge of Boulder City, near the local airport and expanses of open desert. Since opening in 1990, it has become the second busiest state veterans cemetery in the nation. The busiest is in New Jersey.
There are about 30,000 graves at the facility, while the Northern Nevada state veterans cemetery in Fernley has between 7,000 and 8,000.
When the Southern Nevada cemetery was built, facilities such as the small administration building seemed to suffice, but Nevada has one of the largest populations of veterans per capita in the United States, according to cemetery administrator Chris Naylor. As time wore on, renovations were needed, including the addition of indoor chapel facilities in 2002 and a new maintenance building.
Now, with $3.4 million in grant money from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the cemetery is in the midst of its latest expansion, which should be completed by this November.
"The current project is all because we’re running out of room. We have the land, we still have about 35 acres of land available that’s owned by the state that’s part of the cemetery, so the expansion going on now is improving the land to be used for burials," Naylor said.
"The main focus … is to expand the in-ground cremation burial sections, so we’re adding 4,801 in-ground cremation burials as part of this current project."
The project also includes the construction of a new administration building twice the size of the current structure, the addition of 35 to 40 parking spaces, and a new entrance off of Veterans Memorial Drive that will include a sign that will light up at night and a wider entry .
While some state veterans cemeteries charge for the burial of veterans, the Southern Nevada facility waives the costs for the plot, opening and closing of the grave site and headstone. There is a $450 fee for the burial of a loved one such as a spouse or dependent son or daughter.
"So I think that really helps out in a time of need," Naylor said. "Not only are they going through emotional distress but sometimes, especially in this economy, the financial stress is a little hard to take as well."
The cemetery also allows the burial of those who are not Nevada residents, grave sites that make up about 10 percent of the total, Naylor said.
All of these factors seem to have contributed to the facility’s growth and its need to keep expanding. Garlow said there are times when the vastness of the cemetery comes into sharp focus.
"When you get out there and put the flags on the graves (on Memorial Day weekend) and you look out there with each of these flags, thousands of them, each of these flags all over the whole cemetery, and they’re standing up blowing in the wind, that hits. Then it really comes to you about the size of this place," he said.
But perhaps the most obvious indication to the outsider of the cemetery’s need for space is the administration building itself, with its tiny lobby that includes a small counter for waiting on loved ones, bathrooms that are shared by both staff and the public, and a giant whiteboard on the wall that charts the week’s schedule of burials in 40-minute increments.
"You can stand there or sit outside and kind of watch what’s going on, and to have to have the families come in and have them do their business over a counter when they’re talking about laying to rest their family member … it just really doesn’t seem conducive to do that," said Garlow, who is also a member of Boulder City’s Matthew A. Commons VFW Post 36.
The new building, which could be completed before the end of the summer, will be 2,700 square feet and include the much-needed meeting space so loved ones can talk with the staff in private. There also will be a new, larger file room, break room, public restrooms accessible from the exterior of the building and a large lobby.
"In the new building the counter (in the lobby) is larger. It’s not a box window like you’re at the DMV or something, it’s an open concept so it’s going to seem much larger and much more open," Naylor said. "The counter’s going to allow for three families to be helped at the same time and it’s going to have a wheelchair height area for ADA accessibility so people that come in, we’re not looking down at them over the counter, we can actually sit in the chair straight across from them and help them."
Yet once all these projects are completed, it may be time to turn around and break ground once again. The cemetery is in the process of acquiring another federal grant, which requires some matching funds from the state, for anywhere from $6.2 million up to $7.5 million. It would go toward a new columbarium wall and the expansion of the double-casket burial sections, Naylor said.
This should be all the expansion that’s required for at least the next eight years, although in the long run there may be a need to purchase more land, Naylor said.
"We’ve let the city know and we’ve let some senatorial and congressional dignitaries know that if the land ever becomes available across Buchanan that we’d be interested in purchasing that. But for now we’re pretty much set for the next 30 to 35 years."
Beyond the growth, beyond the fact that the cemetery is filling a need in an area with a significant veteran population, there is also what it represents.
Walking around the grounds and viewing the monuments, or attending the annual Memorial Day ceremony , it is obvious that the cemetery is for both honoring those who have passed on and serving as a reminder for the living.
Naylor tells the story of a little boy about 8 or 9 who came up to him on Memorial Day this past May, just after the ceremonies had wrapped up.
"He was a little shy and his dad just mentioned to me that, ‘This is my son Connor and he has something for ya.’ And I looked down and the boy pulled out a little wad of money out of his pocket and told me he’d been saving it and wanted to donate it to the cemetery."
Naylor took the $37, and later wrote the boy a letter and mailed it to him the next day.
"It’s important that we honor our veterans and give them a final resting place, a place that they know they’ll be taken care of. To remember them," he said. "And I think by having veterans cemeteries it’s something that we can show the next generations that are coming up. It’s great when we have Cub Scouts and Boy Scout troops out here to learn about veterans and to understand the meaning of being a veteran and how important it is to serve your country, and what an honor it is, actually."