MANDAN — When an area military veteran died, his family followed his wishes to be buried in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, south of Mandan. A service with full military honors was held in the chapel at the cemetery, followed by the burial.

Dedicated to the men and women who have served this state and nation, just under 8,900 people are buried at the cemetery, according to Pamela Helbling-Schafer, cemetery director.

The North Dakota Veterans Cemetery is located 6-1/2 miles south of Mandan on Highway 1806 on a 35-acre tract of land in the southwest corner of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

"There is another 35 acres that has not been master planned, for a total of 70 acres," said Helbling-Schafer.

The N.D. Veterans Cemetery is the only veterans cemetery that is under control of the North Dakota National Guard and the adjutant general. Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann is the current adjutant general of North Dakota and Brig. Gen. Robert Becklund is deputy adjutant general.

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Retired N.D. National Guard Maj. Gen. Alexander Macdonald, of Fargo, a former adjutant general, was the driving force behind getting the cemetery up and running, said Helbling-Schafer.

In 1989, the state Legislature approved building the cemetery. A site was selected and ground was broken in April 1990. The first burial was held there on July 7, 1992.

Eligibility

The cemetery follows rules and regulations set by the Veterans Affairs to determine eligibility for burial there.

"Veterans, spouses and some dependents may be buried at the veterans cemetery," Helbling-Schafer said.

Dependents must be 21 years old or younger, or 23 or younger while enrolled in an accredited college. An adult dependent may be buried there if they have a dependency condition diagnosed prior to age 21.

"The North Dakota Veterans Cemetery will bury National Guard soldiers who did not have active-duty time other than their training and less than 20 years, where a national cemetery will not," said Helbling-Schafer. She said National Guardsmen only had to serve their initial enlistment term.

There is no fee for burial of the veteran. The burial, burial plot and headstone are all free of charge. Currently, there is a burial fee for spouses and eligible dependents of $550. However, with the passing of SB 2195, the fee will be paid for by the state of North Dakota, effective March 1, 2020.

The headstones at the cemetery face east, toward the rising sun, Helbling-Schafer said. She said volunteers mow the lawn weekly.

Plans for columbarium

"Cremations are on the rise," Helbling-Schafer said. She said 40% of burials in North Dakota are cremation and at the veterans cemetery, 52% of burials are cremation.

Partnering with students at North Dakota State University she said a columbarium has been designed. A columbarium is the above-ground niches for cremains to be placed.

Helbling-Schafer said the NDSU students presented three designs and the team that heard their proposals picked a hybrid design from all three proposals. The design selected will hold up to 1,800 niches, with room for future expansion.

She said phase one of the project will cost $1.3 million. A grant request has been submitted to the Veterans Administration for money to use toward a columbarium. She said they hope to fund the columbarium fully through grants. When phase one of the project is filled, she said, the cemetery will go back to the VA and ask for a grant to move forward with the following phases.

She said they hope to build the columbarium in the summer of 2020 and have it completed in one and a half years.

The cemetery hosts two large events each year: Memorial Day held by the North Dakota National Guard and Wreaths Across America held by the Civil Air Patrol.

A cemetery foundation was established in 1989 and has been accepting donations since that time, Helbling-Schafer said. People who would like to donate to the cemetery can call the veterans cemetery at 701-667-1418.