Arlington National Cemetery

A look at this sacred national treasure on Memorial Day


Arlington National Cemetery is situated on 624 acres of green, gently rolling land in northern Virginia.  Even if it wasn’t a national shrine to the American soldier, and even if some of the most important historical figures in America weren’t buried here, it would still be a striking place, what with its expansive views of Washington, D.C., which is just across the Potomac River from the cemetery.

But the view that arrests the attention is not that of our nation’s Capitol, but instead of the headstones–row after continuous row of precisely-placed marble slabs, thousands upon thousands of them, stretching across the property as far as the eye can see.  Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for over 400,000 people, and most of their graves are marked with these simple headstones.  As visitors look out over the cemetery, they can’t help but think of the many men and women who have served in the United States armed forces, and it invariably has the effect of leaving one speechless.

Row after row of headstones marking soldiers’ graves
The view of Washington, D.C., from Arlington National Cemetery.  Memorial Boulevard, Arlington Memorial Bridge (which crosses the Potomac), and the Lincoln Memorial can be seen in the distance

When we visited Dale’s family in Virginia last November, we spent a few hours at Arlington National Cemetery.  Dale and I had been there before, but exploring this military shrine never loses its impact, and it seems appropriate to share a little bit about the cemetery on Memorial Day.

History of the cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery sits on land that was once owned by George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson (and George Washington’s adopted grandson).  In 1857, Custis gave the property to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who happened to be married to Robert. E. Lee, but they were forced to leave the estate behind after the Civil War broke out.  The federal government took possession of the property and established it, ironically, as Freedman’s Village, a compound that offered assistance to former slaves transitioning to freedom.  As the war progressed and space to bury the war dead dwindled, 200 acres of the property were also turned into a cemetery, and by the end of the Civil War thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers had been laid to rest here.

Thus began Arlington National Cemetery.  It now holds the remains of soldiers from every American military conflict (even those that occurred before the Civil War) as well as many service men and women who served in times of peace.  It is a shrine to our military dead and considered by many to be hallowed ground.

Here are some of the features that make Arlington National Cemetery such a remarkable place and well worth a visit:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is arguably the most famous memorial at the cemetery, and the Changing of the Guard ceremony that takes place here is liable to bring even the most stoic of persons to tears.

The Tomb contains the remains of three unidentified service members, one each from World Wars I and II and the Korean War.*  The Third U.S. Infantry Regiment–the oldest active duty infantry unit in the Army, hence its nickname “The Old Guard”–is charged with protecting the Tomb, and soldiers stand guard 24 hours a day.  Guard duty entails striding back and forth along a black mat that runs behind the Tomb.  The sentinel on duty marches 21 steps across the mat, pivots, faces east for 21 seconds, pivots again and faces north for 21 seconds, and then turns and takes 21 steps back in the direction from which he came.

A sentinel on guard duty.  The large white monument in the background is actually a sarcophagus sitting atop the grave of the soldier killed in World War I, and the three white slabs mark the vaults of the soldiers from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (the latter is empty; see my notes below for an explanation of why).

The guard always keeps his or her rifle on the side closest to the audience to remind us that he/she stands between us and the Tomb.  The number 21 is significant because it symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the highest military honor a serviceman can receive.

The process of solemnly marching back and forth across the black mat is repeated over and over until the sentinel is relieved of duty and the next soldier assumes responsibility.  It’s at this point that the Changing of the Guard takes place.  During the hours that the cemetery is open to the public, the ceremony takes place every hour (October-March) or half hour (April-September), 365 days a year.  (After hours, it’s done less frequently and the ceremony is more informal.)

The Changing of the Guard is an intricate, somber ritual involving a relief commander and two sentinels.  The relief commander appears on the plaza, announces that the Changing of the Guard will begin, and instructs the audience to stand for the duration of the ceremony and to remain silent.  The commander then performs a thorough, white-glove inspection of the retiring sentinel’s rifle.  Finally, all three soldiers meet at the center of the black mat and salute the anonymous soldiers buried in the Tomb.  The new sentinel then commences the march back and forth, and the relief commander and retiring sentinel walk off in synchrony at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.*

The relief commander salutes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

It’s rare that a large crowd of spectators can maintain complete silence, but no sound was to be heard as we observed this somber ritual.  As I watched these soldiers, I felt the reality of war and loss and the sacrifices of the men interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, men who have no identity and no home other than the vaults in which they now rest.  It was painful to contemplate but also moving to see these men so reverently honored by the soldiers of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment.


President Kennedy’s Gravesite

The gravesite of President John F. Kennedy is another truly moving part of Arlington National Cemetery.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  As the nation mourned, debate circulated as to where he would be buried. Many thought his final resting place would be in his home state of Massachusetts; however, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy said, “He belongs to the people,” and on November 25 he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a place much more accessible to the public.  And the people came–more than 3000 an hour visited the gravesite in the first year, and it had 16 million visitors in the first three years after President Kennedy’s death.  Countless others continue to visit each year.

At the request of Mrs. Kennedy, a flame was placed at the gravesite.  The Eternal Flame, which she lit at the funeral and has burned ever since, is powered by a gas burner with a continuously flashing electric spark that relights the gas if the flame is extinguished.

The Eternal Flame and the grave markers of President and Mrs. Kennedy

Two of President Kennedy’s children who preceded him in death, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy and an unnamed stillborn daughter, were exhumed and buried next to him, and when she died in May 1994, Mrs. Kennedy was also buried at this site.

Notable Graves

Besides two Presidents (the grave of William Howard Taft is also at Arlington), many notable people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, including war heroes, generals, physicians and nurses, scientists, explorers, athletes, writers, and artists, among many others.  Section 27, the oldest area of the cemetery, holds the remains of the first soldier to be buried here, Private William Henry Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864.  This section also holds the remains of nearly 3800 freed slaves.

Here are just a few of the remarkable people buried at Arlington National Cemetery:

  • President Kennedy’s brothers, the Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy
  • Medgar Evers, the murdered Civil Rights leader
  • Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, two of the three astronauts killed in the 1967 Apollo I fire
  • Boxer Joe Louis, a.k.a., “The Brown Bomber,” Heavyweight Champion of the World and a sergeant during World War II
  • Thurgood Marshall, first African-American Supreme Court Justice, as well as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Chief Justices Earl Warren, William Rehnquist, and Warren Burger
  • Marguerite Higgins, esteemed war correspondent and the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting
  • Over 360 Medal of Honor recipients are buried in Arlington, as well as many prominent military figures, including General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing,  five-star officers such as Admiral William Halsey and Generals Omar Bradley and George Marshall, numerous Tuskegee Airmen, and war heroes such as Audie Murphy.  Murphy, a Texas native, was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, and he became a popular movie star after the war.
Dale was excited to see this granite tribute to North Pole explorer Robert Peary


There are numerous monuments and memorials scattered throughout the cemetery.  In addition to those that memorialize various American wars, key battles, and military service groups, the memorials also honor a wide array of other groups and historical events, including:

  • The Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters: Several astronauts from both missions are buried in individual sites around the cemetery, while unidentified remains of the Challenger crew lie underneath the monument erected to memorialize this tragic event.
A placard on the Shuttle Challenger Memorial (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Iran Rescue Mission: Dedicated to the eight servicemen who lost their lives in 1980 in a failed attempt to rescue 53 American hostages held in Iran
  • Pan Am Flight 103: This memorial was a gift from the people of Scotland to the people of the United States, funded entirely through private donations and honoring those who lost their lives on Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988.  270 people, including 189 Americans as well as persons from 21 other countries, died in what was determined to be a terrorist attack on the United States.
  • Pentagon Group Burial Marker: As part of the coordinated 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 59 on board as well as 125 people at the Pentagon.  Remains of several victims are buried underneath the Pentagon Group Burial Marker, and the names of all 184 victims have been inscribed there.
  • Confederate Memorial: Thousands of Civil War soldiers are buried at Arlington, including many Confederate soldiers.  For years these men were considered traitors, and family members were not allowed to decorate the gravesites or, in some cases, visit the cemetery.  With time, the extreme post-war animosity between the North and South gradually lessened, and in the early 1900s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy petitioned Congress to erect a memorial to the soldiers who died fighting for the Southern cause.  The petition was approved, and the memorial was inaugurated in 1914.

Memorial Amphitheater


Many of the most significant ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery are conducted at the Memorial Amphitheater, the largest structure on the property.  Ceremonies include services on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day.  Funerals and other memorial services are frequently held here as well.


The names of 44 U.S. battles spanning from the American Revolution through the Spanish-American War are inscribed on the frieze above the colonnade, and a quote from the Roman poet Horace is inscribed above the west entrance to the amphitheater.  It says, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”


Not just for the famous

It’s important to remember that, in addition to the famous people and historic figures mentioned above, many thousands of “regular” soldiers are buried in Arlington.  It’s still an active cemetery, and thousands of servicemen and women are interred here every year; in fact, Arlington has anywhere from 27-30 funerals a day (6-8 on Saturdays), and during your visit you might hear a bugler playing Taps or see a horse-drawn carriage carrying a casket draped with the American Flag.  Requirements for interment at Arlington are more stringent than at other national cemeteries, but active duty, retired, and former members of the armed forces are generally eligible, as well as, in many cases, their spouses and children.


A visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn experience, but it is also comforting to know that such a place exists to honor those soldiers–some celebrated, some anonymous–who served our country in times of war and peace.


-From 1984-1998, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier held the remains of a soldier killed in the Vietnam War; however, in 1998 he was identified as Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, and his remains were disinterred and reburied near his family’s home in St. Louis.  Since then the Vietnam vault beneath the Tomb has remained empty.

-In addition to the three soldiers interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington National Cemetery holds the remains of almost 5000 unidentified soldiers from various American conflicts.

-Serving as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a great honor, and all of the soldiers are volunteers.  They must undergo a rigorous application process that requires not just physical prowess but also an intimate knowledge of and reverence for Arlington National Cemetery.  You can read more about the process here.

-As I mentioned above, the Changing of the Guard is an incredibly intricate ceremony, but the activity behind the scenes is even more intense.  For example, it takes eight hours for the sentinels to prepare their uniforms!  And guard duty takes place in even the most inclement weather.

-Finally, instead of a ground burial, many people undergo inurnment, in which cremated remains are placed in an urn and then stored in the Columbarium, or Niche Wall, of Arlington National Cemetery.

The Niche Wall (Source: Arlington National Cemetery)