As American citizens, we have the privilege of living in a country where men and women willingly serve in our Armed Forces and fight to preserve our freedoms. They put their lives on the line out of love for their country and fellow countrymen. They face danger unflinchingly, bear injury to body and mind courageously, and too many have sacrificed their own lives valiantly to protect America’s people and her interests. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have fallen so that others never have to pay that ultimate price. A fitting place to pay tribute to these heroes is Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
Arlington National Cemetery History
Part of the 612 acres of what is now Arlington National Cemetery was originally Robert E. Lee’s homestead. In 1864, with Lee away commanding Confederate forces in the Civil War and a pressing need for burial space in Washington, the government seized the property and made it a military cemetery. In 1868, the first national commemoration of ‘Decoration Day’ took place there, a tribute later renamed Memorial Day.
Who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery?
Today there are more than 300,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery, and an average of 5,000 funerals each year, or 28 each day. Eligibility for burial is quite detailed, but includes active or retired members of all U.S. Armed Forces, and recipients of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Distinguished Service medals and Medals of Honor. When the cemetery reaches capacity, estimated to be in 2020, the site will become a national shrine.
Presidents of the U.S. can also be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, although only John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft have been interred there. Other notables include Robert Kennedy, Abner Doubleday of baseball fame, Glenn Miller, the big band leader, and astronaut Gus Grissom. Approximately 3,800 freed and fugitive Civil War slaves are also buried in section 27; their gravestones only inscribed with “citizen.”
Arlington National Cemetery is the only military cemetery in the U.S. that is allowed to use horses in the burial ceremony. A horse-drawn caisson carries the flag draped casket to its final resting place. All horses are saddled, but the ones on the right are riderless. Traditionally, in high-ranking Army or Marine funerals, a single riderless horse called the “caparisoned horse” follows the caisson with boots reversed in the stirrups. The pageantry of these funeral processions is deeply moving.
Each year just before Memorial weekend, members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (the Old Guard) place small individual American flags precisely 12 inches in front of tens of thousands of gravestones. The rows of meticulously straight white markers with fastidiously placed flags is itself a tribute to the fallen veterans interred there. It’s a poignant sight that takes hundreds of Old Guard members to accomplish. The flags are removed after the Memorial Day weekend.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
There are also some 5,000 unknown war veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery – soldiers who have fallen in anonymity while in service to their country. In 1932, the marble Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was installed as a memorial to the dead of World War I. Remains of unknown soldiers of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War have also been interred in the memorial, although the Vietnam veteran was later exhumed and identified by DNA testing and reburied elsewhere.
The Tomb of the Unknowns is inscribed with the words: “Here rests in honored glory An American Soldier known but to God.” Members of The Old Guard have guarded the Tomb every second, of every day regardless of weather or holidays since April 6, 1948. The changing of the guard is executed each half hour (in summer, hourly during winter) in an elaborate ritual performed in humble reverence. Visitors watch in silent respect as the infantrymen in full dress uniform march exactly 90 steps per minute, carrying their M-14 riffles. The changing of the guard is a solemn and stirring ceremony to observe.
Visitors can pay respect to America’s military dead at Arlington National Cemetery 365 days a year with no entrance fee. It’s an experience that will undoubtedly leave you feeling thankful for 150 years of America’s military veterans who served our country with honor.