Construction equipment sits on a 6-acre lot on Route 1 near the Columbia Falls town line that is being developed into a federal veterans cemetery. Credit: Bill Trotter|BDN

For the first time in more than 80 years, the federal government is building a cemetery for veterans in Maine.

The new cemetery is being developed in Jonesboro, with support from a local family, and is expected to be completed by spring of 2020. It will be the second such federal cemetery in Maine, with the first being Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, near Augusta.

The 6.2-acre property is under development on Route 1 in Jonesboro, near the Columbia Falls town line and the Balsam Valley Amphitheater outdoor music venue, on land donated by Worcester Holdings. The company is part of a group of entities founded by local residents Morrill and Karen Worcester, who also founded and run Worcester Wreath Co. and the nonprofit group Wreaths Across America, which is known for providing wreaths to place on veteran headstones and memorials across the country every Christmas.

Les Melnyk, spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, said that the project is a result of an initiative by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to improve burial access for veterans in rural parts of the country. The National Cemetery Administration is a part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Because burials at Togus have been restricted since 1961 to veterans, spouses or eligible family members who already have an immediate family member buried on site, Maine currently has no federal veterans cemetery that is accepting new interments, Melnyk said. More than 5,300 people are buried at the Togus cemetery, which was first established in 1865. Cemetery space at Togus was expanded in 1936, marking the last time the federal government new cemetery space in Maine.

There are four state-run cemeteries for veterans in Maine, with locations in Springvale, Caribou, and two in Augusta. By building a cemetery in eastern Maine, Melnyk said, the VA hopes to better serve veterans and their families who live in the area.

“Currently, more than 92 percent of all veterans living in the U.S. have a burial option at a VA, state, territorial or tribal veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their home,” Melnyk said. The VA “continues to build cemeteries like the one under construction in [Jonesboro] and to fund state, territorial and tribal cemeteries with federal grants, in order to achieve our strategic goal of raising the percentage of those within 75 miles of a cemetery to 95 percent.”

The cemetery has not yet been named, Melnyk said, and a start date for burials at the site has not been determined.

Valiant Construction of Louisville, Kentucky, was awarded a $3.8 million contract in August 2018 to design and construct the cemetery, he said.

Attempts to contact the Worcesters about their donation and the project were unsuccessful.

In addition to building the new veterans’ cemetery in Jonesboro, the federal agency has awarded a $2 million grant to the state-run Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery in Springvale so it can expand, federal officials announced last week.

The expansion in Springvale will create 554 pre-placed crypts and 234 green burial gravesites and will include landscaping and supporting infrastructure, federal officials said. The project will develop approximately 1.6 acres and will enable the cemetery to serve an expanded total of approximately 40,000 veterans, their spouses and eligible family members.

The cemetery’s current design capacity is capped at 20,000 casket burials, according to that cemetery’s website.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....