Adriana Vigil still remembers attending the military funeral of her father, Chris Vigil, a U.S. Army veteran who died in August 1999.
Sitting beside his grave Wednesday in the Santa Fe National Cemetery, she recalled the ceremony that came with that difficult day: an honor guard firing off three volleys, the playing of taps and the folding and presentation of an American flag to her sister.
“To me, it felt like my dad deserved it,” she said as the sun pushed its way through some clouds. “He was a hero to me.”
For the time being, such rituals are being halted during funeral services as the spread of COVID-19 darkens an event already shadowed with grief and sadness. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees national cemeteries, announced last week it is stoping to the “rendering of military funeral honors until further notice.”
“VA national cemeteries will continue to perform our essential function,” Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves said in a news release. “We trust the public understands that we must place priority on the health and safety of veterans and families and our team members who serve them.”
Cindy Van Bibber, director of Santa Fe National Cemetery, said by telephone Wednesday that funeral services will continue without the accompanying honors for the time being. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this week expanded an order that limits gatherings to no more than five people, including funeral services. Mourners, Van Bibber said, may watch from the cemetery’s roads.
“We know it’s difficult for families right now, but we have a process we will return to,” she said.
Van Bibber said the cemetery generally schedules eight burials a day, though not all of them are for military members, because spouses of military veterans may also be interred there.
She added people may still schedule a burial and choose to postpone a service until the COVID-19 threat has passed. Both options may be postponed as well.
“It’s their call,” Van Bibber said.
After the Civil War, the federal government established the cemetery for the reinterment of Union soldiers who died during the conflict in New Mexico. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Fe (now known as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe), which owned the property, donated the land to the United States in 1870. According to the cemetery’s website, the federal government decided to downgrade the status of the cemetery in 1876 before redesignating it as a national cemetery nine years later.
Vigil said coming to the cemetery and sitting near her father’s gravesite gives her a sense of peace, especially in this time of coronavirus when “we don’t know what to expect anymore.”
She understands the decision to temporarily stop the type of ceremony her family was part of more than 20 years ago.
“But it’s still sad,” she said. “A family needs to be there to honor a veteran’s service.”