Judith Quinones lays out pictures of her late husband Abel on an ottoman in the living room of her assisted living community.
“This is my favorite one of Abel. He looks nice. I just love it,” says Quinones holding a photo of a younger Abel. It was taken before he rose to the rank of Master Chief in the Navy where he served around the world including in Vietnam.
Abel died three years ago at 84, and Judith has kept his ashes ever since. “Abel worked so hard for this and looked forward to it, and now it’s my job to see that he gets to be where he wanted to be,” says Quinones. What he worked hard for was a veterans cemetery on the former Fort Ord, which is now under construction. She’s saving his ashes until it opens next July, and she’s not the only one.
“The first talk of the cemetery was 20 years ago when the base closed, and I think people really thought it was going to happen, so they started putting the remains in closets or mantles,” says Wes Morrill with the Monterey County Office of Military & Veterans’ Affairs.
In fact even before his office held a formal meeting on how to register for internment at the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery, Morrill had already received about 30 applications from people who had saved ashes.
The application is the first step in the process . It allows the California Department of Veterans’ Affairs to confirm eligibility for burial in a veterans cemetery.
“There’s been kind of a tense level of stress of people saying, ‘I need to do something right now’, and they really don’t,” says Morrill.
People don’t need to rush because unlike a traditional cemetery, you cannot reserve spot in a veterans cemetery. Since veterans are buried at no charge, the cemeteries give spots on a first come, first serve basis. In the cases of those whose ashes have been saved, they will be interned in order of their date of death. Still, anyone can fill out an application to confirm eligibility.
This first phase of the cemetery will include a columbarium with 5000 niches for cremated remains. Heidi Payan plans to secure one for her mother, a former Army Captain who served on Fort Ord.
“Her death was untimely, and we were close enough that I knew what she wanted, so I just kept her at home until this happened, and thankfully it finally is,” says Payan.
For Payan, and others like Judith Quinones, next July will bring the chance for closure.
“What you feel in your heart is hard to put into a word, but that’s where I am right now. I’m so happy that finally there will be a place for him to be,” says Quinones.
Still the effort is far from over, says veteran Jack Stewart, who has been part of the cemetery push since the beginning.
“We have to have the next phase include in-ground burials because of religious beliefs and preferences of some veterans to be interned in the ground,” says Stewart.
The master plan for the 78-acre site does call for in-ground burials, but funding has not been secured for that part of the project.