CANTON, Ga. (AP) — As he surveyed the lush green hills of Georgia National Cemetery on Saturday, Richard Weber smiled with anticipation at the thought of spending eternity here.

“I’ve made my arrangements,” the 80-year-old World War II veteran and retired missionary said. “I look forward to being buried here.”

About 75 veterans and their families also looked forward to being part of the cemetery’s very first Memorial Day observance, gathering under a cemetery pavilion on Saturday to remember those who gave their lives fighting for their country. Boy Scouts also performed an annual Memorial Day tradition — yet a first for the Georgia cemetery — placing flags before veterans’ graves.

This year’s holiday is very emotional for visitors to the cemetery because it has only been open for a little more than a month, said Sandra Beckley, cemetery director.

“To be able to honor the Georgia veterans who have wanted this for so long — it’s been a great experience to help them,” she said.

Open since April 24, the $28 million cemetery already has had 176 burials of veterans who had fought in America’s conflicts from World War II to Vietnam and more than 100 funerals have been scheduled through February. Cemetery officials also are planning for additional burials from other veterans’ deaths this year, Beckley said.

The cemetery, located about 35 miles north of Atlanta, is the newest of 123 cemeteries run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration and is intended to accommodate the burials of at least 68,000 veterans and their dependents over several decades.

Two other new national cemeteries, in Solano County, Calif., and in Lake Worth, Fla., are expected to be open by the end of the year. Congress passed laws in 1999 and 2003 to create these and nine other national cemeteries near areas with large veteran populations.

The national cemetery program dates to the height of the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1862 recognizing that national cemeteries were needed “...for the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.”

In 1873, the program was expanded to include all honorably discharged veterans. It provides the gravesite (including a concrete graveliner for caskets), headstone and perpetual care of the grave. It also opens and closes the gravesite and provides the veteran’s family a memorial certificate and U.S. flag.

Weber and his wife, Faith, moved to the area 20 years ago, and say they have selected Canton, a small town amid northwest Georgia’s rolling hills, as their final resting place. The couple plans to transfer their burial plots from New York to Georgia.

“We love it here, it’s a little closer to God,” Faith Weber said. “The air is so good and we feel so honored.”

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