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Occasional disinterments open up space in Punchbowl

By June Watanabe


Question: My father, a decorated World War II 100th Infantry Battalion veteran, died in 1995. We were told that Punchbowl had no available burial plots. He was buried at the Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe without honor guards or the playing of taps. We were told there were no troops available to perform the burial because of the Iraq war. I have read and seen photos of ceremonies and burials at Punchbowl after 1995. Have burial plots and honor guards become available all of a sudden? Do they reserve plots for Afghanistan and Iran combat veterans?

Answer: First and foremost, "we take no reservations" for burial plots, emphasized Gene Castagnetti, director of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Punchbowl.

Although the 35,000-plus plots currently are all taken, some do become available because of disinterments.

In those cases, he said, it really is a matter of "timing" as to who gets to be buried at Punchbowl: "There is no reserve system or preference given to whether you are a general or private, because when you come to this national shrine, a veteran is a veteran," Castagnetti said.

Nor does it matter in which war the veteran participated.

Castagnetti explained that more than 20 years ago, National Cemetery Administration officials gave notice to Hawaii's congressional delegation that there were no "casketed" grave spaces available at Punchbowl; there was space only for cremated remains. That was the driving force behind construction of the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, he said.

Occasionally, a plot at Punchbowl becomes available when a family decides to have the deceased person buried elsewhere.

"The integrity of our system" is that officials will go to one of 13 local funeral homes "on a rotation basis" and ask whether they have a deceased veteran or deceased eligible spouse in its care, Castagnetti said. If so, the mortuary then notifies the family that there is a "recovered grave" available at Punchbowl.

Plots might become available more frequently now that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is working with the National Cemetery Administration to identify the remains of Korean War "unknowns." Of the 2,923 or so unidentified remains buried at Punchbowl, 864 are from the Korean War, and about 1,900 are from World War II, Castagnetti said.

By working with a special type of DNA called mitochondrial DNA, JPAC "has been very successful" in identifying remains, which means "we have successfully been able to have more ... unknowns identified," he said. Most of the families involved live on the mainland and often choose to have the remains reburied there.

JPAC is trying to meet a congressional mandate to do at least three disinterments a month from Punchbowl, Castagnetti said, noting that five were done in October. However, he said it could take two to three years to identify a set of remains.

Funeral honors for vets

The Department of Defense began implementing Public Law 106-65, which provides military funeral honors to veterans "who have defended our nation," on Jan. 1, 2000.

Upon a family's request, that law requires that every eligible veteran receive a military honors ceremony to include folding and presenting the American flag and the playing of taps by an honors detail.

The detail consists of two or more uniformed military persons, with at least one being a member of the veteran's military branch.

Funeral homes are supposed to request the honors ceremony on behalf of an eligible veteran's family.

For more information, go to or write to Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense For Public Affairs, Community Relations and Public Liaison, 1400 Defense Pentagon, Room 2D982, Washington, DC 20301-1400.

Write to "Kokua Line" at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or email

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