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Final rest

The Department of Veterans Affairs officially opened the new columbarium at the Prescott National Cemetery with a dedication ceremony this past Thursday.

The Prescott National Cemetery closed in 1974 when it ran out of room for any more funeral plots. While burial plots are no longer available, the new columbarium provides 3,000 niches for cremated veterans and their families.

Urns containing the cremated remains of veterans and family members have already filled around 115 of the niches. Each niche has a marble plaque on it displaying the name and rank of the soldier inurned within.

The unofficial opening of the Columbarium was on Feb. 5, but Thursday marked the official opening. Various military agencies attended the dedication ceremony.

The dedication included the posting of colors, the singing of the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, an invocation, a rifle salute, the playing of "Taps," and a benediction.

The keynote speaker for the event was William F. Tuerk, the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. President George W. Bush nominated Tuerk for the position in July 2005. He currently directs the National Cemetery Association, which comprises 124 national cemeteries providing burial services for military veterans and eligible family members.

In his speech, Tuerk made special mention of Army Sgt. Nicholas Ryan Sowinski, who died in the Iraq conflict in 2006, and who is inurned within the columbarium. Sowinski's niche bears a plaque reading "Beloved son, brother and hero." Sowinski's father and mother attended the dedication ceremony.

Tuerk said in his speech that the Prescott columbarium ensures the legacy of America's heroes. "For more than 140 years the Prescott National Cemetery has honored those who wore the uniform in defense of our ideals, values and freedom... Now, the columbarium here in Prescott ensures the legacy of today's heroes as well.

"Wars begin and end, but caring for our nation's warriors is a perpetual obligation," Tuerk said. "The VA's mission, as Abraham Lincoln said, is 'To care for him who shall have borne the battle.' With the columbarium, the tradition is carried on."

Frank Cimorelli, Public Affairs officer for the VA Medical Center, said the columbarium is the culmination of years of planning. "This is a significant event. For the past 15 years, I'd get calls every week about this, asking when the Prescott National Cemetery would be open again," Cimorelli said. "They did a heck of a job, working on the cemetery from the ground up."

Wayne Ellis, director of the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix, of which the Prescott National Cemetery is a satellite, said the columbarium fills a need that has existed for some time. "This has been a long time coming," Ellis said. "The re-opening provides an option for those veterans who want to be laid to rest in Prescott. There was only room for a columbarium, so just cremation, no casket burials; those you would have to go to the Phoenix cemetery for. But it does give veterans a local option, and that was sorely needed."

According to Cimorelli, the need is greater then ever. "Some estimates say World War II vets are dying 1,000 per day," Cimorelli said. "Yavapai County is a popular retirement destination for vets. Statistics say about 25 percent of Yavapai County's population is veterans and their families. That reflects the mores and values of our communities, and a lot of those veterans want to be buried here."

"With our space concerns, cremation is the only option, but many veterans have determined that they want to be laid to rest here, in Prescott."

The public is welcome at the Prescott National Cemetery to see the columbarium and pay tribute to the American veterans there. "It can be a surreal place," Cimorelli said. "People should visit and have a quiet moment. It's hard not to be moved."

Contact the reporter at dmeurer@prescottaz.com

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