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North Dakota veterans cemeteries prepare for the future, ready for Memorial Day crowds


North Dakota veterans cemeteries prepare for the future, ready for Memorial Day crowds

May 27, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Michael Achterling
North Dakota veterans cemeteries prepare for the future, ready for Memorial Day crowds
Miniature flags are planted next to gravesites at Fargo National Cemetery. (Contributed/Fargo National Cemetery/Fort Snelling)

Efforts are underway to expand the Fargo National Cemetery, modeling it after the state-run Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan.

The Fargo National Cemetery, dedicated in September 2019 on about 5 acres of land northwest of Fargo in Harwood, is about to get a larger footprint. Newly purchased land will allow the cemetery to expand to 35 acres.

“It was very clear that we needed a larger cemetery,” said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Committee.

Hoeven said the next major project for the site will be the construction of a visitors center.

“We’re kind of using the state Veterans Cemetery in Mandan as a model because it’s one of the nicest state-run veterans cemeteries in the country,” Hoeven said.

Marshall Murphy, deputy director of the Fort Snelling National Cemetery Complex, said the National Cemetery Administration is in the preliminary planning stages of Fargo’s expansion. He said he expects new additions to take at least a few years to complete. 

In the meantime, the Department of Veterans Affairs has leased the newly acquired land back to a farmer while plans are being developed, Murphy said.

Stakeholders including the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, veterans groups and a cemetery steering committee are providing input, Hoeven said.

“We are hopeful that we can reach a final plan and get going on the project by this fall or next spring,” Hoeven said.

The closest federal veterans cemeteries are in Spearfish, South Dakota, and Minneapolis.

The Fargo National Cemetery averages about 185 burials per year, said Jennifer Lieder, the cemetery’s manager. 

“It serves almost all of North Dakota and then a big portion of Minnesota and even into South Dakota,” Lieder said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans for the Fargo cemetery in 2012 as part of its Rural Initiative plan to expand burial options in rural areas. 

Until 2019, the only veterans cemetery in the state was the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan. The cemetery, which opened in July 1992, is operated through the Office of the Adjutant General. It sits on 70 acres of land, 35 acres of which are undeveloped. 

Last November, the cemetery dedicated a columbarium, a notched wall used to store cremation urns. The project was funded through a $1.86 million grant from the National Cemetery Administration and more than $600,000 from the cemetery’s foundation.

Pamela Helbling-Schafer, director of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, said the cemetery continues to provide underground cremation burial for family members who want the iconic veterans headstone, but the columbarium gives people another option.

At the current rate, the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery should have enough burial space for the next 15 years, not including the 35 acres that are undeveloped, Helbling-Schafer said.

“We’re talking many, many, many more years of space for interment,” she said.

More than 2,000 visitors are expected to attend the Mandan cemetery’s Memorial Day ceremony, which starts at noon Monday. Volunteers will arrive at 8 a.m. to set flags on each of the more than 9,000 gravesites. The Avenue of Flags will feature 50 American flags flying along the roadway all day. 

“If folks want to see that Avenue of Flags up, it’s so breathtaking when you drive in to see them all placed,” Helbling-Schafer said. 

For more information on bus locations and schedules for the Memorial Day event in Mandan, check the North Dakota National Guard Service Member and Family Support Facebook page.

The Fargo National Cemetery is expected to see more than 1,000 visitors over the holiday for its program at 3 p.m. Monday. For more information, check out the Fargo National Cemetery Committee Facebook page.