WASHINGTON — The number of wreaths that can be laid on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery might be limited this year because donors who have paid the costs are now splitting their donations to help the tradition spread to other veterans cemeteries across the nation.
That has left the nonprofit Wreaths Across America short about $525,000 — meaning it can afford just 100,000 wreaths, or 35,000 fewer than it planned to lay Dec. 14 against Arlington Cemetery's stark white gravestones.
"Our donations are up overall nationwide, but some of our larger corporate sponsors want to fund (wreaths) in other areas," said Wayne Hanson, president of the group's board of directors. "It's great because we're getting veterans recognized at other locations, and I would love to see wreaths on every single veteran's grave across America, but I consider Arlington our nation's premier cemetery."
Last year, volunteers laid holiday wreaths at 110,600 of Arlington's 300,000 headstones. The cemetery's officials assign the locations, but the group's volunteers always decorate Section 60, where many of the casualties from the most recent American wars are buried. They also lay wreaths in Section 27, home to the oldest graves in the 150-year-old cemetery.
Wreaths Across America laid another 400,000 wreaths last year in 800 other veterans cemeteries across the United States.
The practice of distributing evergreen wreaths began in 1992 when Morrill and Karen Worcester, owners of Worcester Wreath in Harrington, Maine, had 5,000 leftover wreaths and decided to use them to adorn several hundred graves at Arlington.
The effort grew quietly, with the help of the Maine State Society, until an Air Force sergeant posted a photo online of the custom in 2005, Hanson said. The photo went viral, and people started sending donations to the Worcesters. They formed a nonprofit organization, and in 2011, a caravan of 20 tractor-trailers drove more than 100,000 wreaths from Maine to Arlington.
The Worcesters still provide the wreaths, at a break-even cost of $15 each, Hanson said.
Hanson said any individual, group or business that wants to donate or volunteer should go to the organization's website, www.wreathsacrossamerica.org. Some 12,000 to 15,000 people have already signed up to lay the wreaths at Arlington, which will take place no matter the weather. Hanson, a Springfield, Va.-based federal retiree, said some of those volunteers are veterans and family members of the deceased, but others are regular citizens who want to honor the military.
Officials at Arlington urged people planning to visit Dec. 14 to take Metrorail and warned that there will be no visitor parking available until 1 p.m. that day. Details for volunteers are on the cemetery's website, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil, under "news and updates."