Col. William James Foody served in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm and was honored with multiple awards for his service and an honorable discharge. He was also an accomplished general surgeon.
When Foody passed away in December 2015, his widow, Marilyn, chose to have his ashes placed in a vault in a columbarium at the Alabama State Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Spanish Fort in hopes that one day she could be buried there alongside him.
After having a memorial service for James Foody in February, Marilyn said her husband’s ashes have been in an urn in his old office since January because of delays in the construction of additional columbaria at the cemetery. She said the cemetery contracted with White-Spunner Construction to build six additional columbaria last year and she and other veterans’ families were promised the expansion would be open six months ago.
“My husband passed away in December and we had his memorial service in February, and still those vaults have not been built,” Foody said. “The contract, signed over a year ago, said they would be complete in six months.”
Foody said her husband remains on a waiting list with roughly 40 other families seeking to have their loved ones’ ashes, or cremains, placed in one of the six new columbaria at the cemetery, which was dedicated in 2012.
“There are 40 people on a waiting list to have their loved ones’ ashes buried in these vaults, without any sense of peace,” she said. “I am outraged and I know there are 40 other families who are outraged by this. This is a slap in the face to families who can’t have closure.”
The state-run cemetery is located on State Highway 225 adjacent to Blakeley State Park, the site of the April 9, 1865, final battle of the Civil War.
Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clyde Marsh, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, said the project is set for completion by the end of June. He blamed “defective work” for the delays.
The columbarium walls are designed to house cremains or urns in small vaults. Marsh said the cemetery also offers in-ground burials for ashes and a variety of other burial options. Families may also choose to have ashes scattered in a memorial garden on the site.
Originally, the cemetery had two columbarium walls that held a total of 128 niches for cremated remains and urns. Last year, White-Spunner Construction won a contract to construct six additional walls, which would expand the cemetery’s columbarium vault spaces to more than 700.
“The walls are expected to last about 10 years [before they are filled],” Marsh said. “We have about 100 acres on site and the first section of cemetery was about 20 acres. We expect to need to expand roughly every 10 years.”
According to a request for proposals released by the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014, the columbarium expansion was expected to cost approximately $490,000.
“The columbaria additions are nearly complete,” Marsh said. “If the construction meets the June deadline, then it will have to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, architects and our office before it can open. If it passes the inspection, we can expect it to open for cremated burials by the end of July.
“The delay was due to defective work done by the contractor,” Marsh said. “Obviously, when you have defective work it has to be corrected before you can move forward.”
Reached by phone June 23, White-Spunner Construction directed questions about the project to Fairhope-based firm Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects. Messages seeking comment from firm principal Mac Walcott were not returned by press time.
Marsh said he is aware there are families waiting to place their loved ones’ cremains in one of the new columbaria and has received calls about the issue. Despite the delay, he said families have other options for burial that remain available. Marsh said families waiting for the columbaria expansion to open are making a “family decision” and that they could have their loved ones’ cremains buried in ground or scattered in the site’s memorial garden at any time.
“We do have other burial spots for cremains but some families prefer the columbarium wall, which is not available right now,” Marsh said. “It is a personal choice and we do have other options available. We are very close, I think, to being finished and as soon as the work is done and passes inspection, it will open.”
Interments began at the cemetery in 2013. A $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid for the cemetery’s construction on land donated by the Baldwin County Commission, which purchased the land in 2006. Additional acreage was donated by Eastern Shore dentist Dr. Barry Booth.
In 2009, the state Legislature voted to create the first state-run veterans cemetery on the land. It remains the only state-run veterans cemetery in Alabama.
Contacted twice for this story, Alabama State Veterans Memorial Cemetery Director Tony Ross declined to comment on the issue.
After hearing complaints about delays in the columbarium project, the Baldwin County Commission sent a formal letter to Marsh requesting an update on the project at its June 7 meeting.
A representative from Rep. Bradley Byrne’s staff said his Baldwin County office is aware of the project delays and will continue to work with the Baldwin County Commission as necessary. However, the representative said the project is a state issue and Byrne is “not heavily involved” at this point. Gov. Robert Bentley’s press secretary Yasamie August also directed questions about the project to the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Mobile National Cemetery reached capacity in 1962. Today only family members of veterans already in the cemetery can be buried there. There are also veterans cemeteries in Biloxi and Pensacola.