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Pam Helbling-Schafer, director of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan, said funds for burial of spouses and dependents of veterans will help.

North Dakota's Veterans Cemetery is entering somewhat of a new era. 

State lawmakers in their recent legislative session approved $175,000 for burials of military spouses and eligible dependents at the cemetery south of Mandan, available beginning March 1, 2020. The 35-acre cemetery also is planning a columbarium for interring cremains, with a rendering on display Monday.

Cemetery director Pam Helbling-Schafer said the bill providing for military spouses' burials is a "positive move." Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, a Vietnam veteran, brought the bill after previously unsuccessful attempts.

After its initial, narrow defeat in the House in March, the bill passed with 20 more yeas on its reconsideration days later, when House members invoked their families' experiences in military service.

"It was a hard road to get it passed," Marcellais said, who added he hopes future funding can go in a budget bill.

He said he brought the bill as military spouses deserve the same burials as veterans, given their experiences while their partner is in service. Marcellais married his wife, Betty, about a week before entering military service in 1968 and deployed six months later to Vietnam for a year, followed by time at Fort Hood, Texas. 

"It was hard," Marcellais said. He is a veteran service officer for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and helped lead the 2018 North Dakota Native Veterans Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.  

Helbling-Schafer said the cemetery's $550 burial fee for spouses and dependents can be hard for some families.

"Anything that is out there that will benefit a veteran or their family or spouses, dependents is certainly a positive move," she said.

The cemetery buries more than twice as many veterans as spouses, she added. About 30 burials take place per month, but as many as 10 a week in May as spring and summer are busy.

Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, said from his long career as a funeral director, he understands the bill's importance for military families: "I think it's great." 

"Clearly the spouses serve along with their husband or wife and so do the kids, and it was something that we could do," said Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, a U.S. Army veteran. 

He and Nathe said they expect the funding to be renewed.

"This is a benefit that once we've given it, we're not taking it back," Nathe said.

The state Veterans Cemetery also is developing a master plan for an additional 35-acre tract it purchased in 2015.

The planned columbarium is to be phased in over at least two years, to at first hold 1,800 above-ground niches for cremains. About 52% of burials at the cemetery are cremation. Current burial space should last at least 25 more years, Helbling-Schafer said.

She added the cemetery is applying for a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grant to help fund the columbarium, with design work from students of North Dakota State University.

"That is something that we're working on and will be certainly including the public in information as things move along with that as well," Helbling-Schafer said. 

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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