T he last unclaimed niche at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery was filled Tuesday morning, ending an era at one of the country’s most beautiful and historic burial grounds for veterans.
“This closes the book,” said Doug Ledbetter, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery.
The windswept, iconic site on Point Loma has been shut to most new casket burials since 1966. But veterans could have their ashes laid to rest there in a series of columbarium walls overlooking the Pacific.
Now that option is effectively over.
Burials and inurnments will continue, but on an extremely limited basis. People who have reserved a niche or burial site — usually because of a spouse already laid to rest there — will still be accommodated.
An estimated 112,000 people have remains at Fort Rosecrans, some dating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual.
It is the resting place of many heroes, old and new.
At least 23 Medal of Honor recipients are buried there. The most recent is San Diego Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor, who was posthumously awarded the nation’s top military honor for jumping on a grenade to save his team in Iraq in 2006.
At least 37 U.S. service members killed in action in Iraq are interred there, in addition to 20 from Afghanistan.
VA officials in Washington, D.C., had intended to build more columbarium walls at Fort Rosecrans, but canceled those plans after Miramar National Cemetery began accepting casket burials in April 2011.
Some veterans in San Diego County have expressed dismay since the change was disclosed last year. Despite a bumper crop of letters sent to local congressional offices, the VA did not reverse its decision.
Former sailors especially treasure the sweeping views of Navy bases along San Diego Bay and of warships heading to sea. On Tuesday, as the final unclaimed niches were filled, the amphibious warship San Diego sailed quietly past Point Loma.
Ledbetter, also director at Miramar, hopes veterans will give the new 313-acre cemetery a chance.
It sits on chaparral-covered rolling hills near Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Deer from the nearby canyons are known to visit graves and nibble flowers, and — the joke goes — every veteran gets a flyover from the comings and goings of Miramar aviators.
“It certainly doesn’t have the views of Rosecrans, but it’s got its own beauty,” said Ledbetter, an Air Force veteran. “And we’re only in the first phase of six phases. As time progresses, the cemetery will only get more beautiful.”
On Tuesday, the last person to fill an unclaimed niche at Fort Rosecrans was Mary Rossa Luzar, a San Diego resident who died in 2010 at age 88.
Her journey to Fort Rosecrans — at the end of Row 9, overlooking the graceful sweep of the bay — started back in World War II.
She married her high school sweetheart, Stanislav Rossa, just before he joined the Army Air Forces. Rossa’s bomber was shot down off China on March 15, 1945, and the entire crew was lost at sea.