Honoring Our Nation’s Dead at Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

The most famous cemetery in the United States is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. In fact, Arlington National Cemetery overlooks the nation’s capital, although its residents probably couldn’t care less. President John F Kennedy thought it was so beautiful that he famously stated he “could stay there forever,” which is how he came to be interred there less than a year later.

The cemetery memorializes our nation’s service and sacrifice. Almost 400 Medal of Honor recipients lay in Arlington. And more than 400 hundred thousand service members from every one of America’s major wars, from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts, are there as well.

Arlington National Cemetery’s Beginnings

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the military buried most of the soldiers who died in battle near Washington DC at the U.S. Soldiers’ Cemetery in Washington DC or in Alexandria Cemetery in Alexandria VA. But by late 1863, both were nearly full. Something needed to be done.

As early as July 1862, Congress authorized the U.S. Federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead — the U.S. Soldiers Cemetery was the first. That legislation also put the U.S. Army Quartermaster General in charge of this program. 

The problem of where to place the nation’s war dead continued growing with each major battle. Then in May 1864, Union forces suffered huge casualties during the Battle of the Wilderness. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs ordered his staff to identify eligible sites for a large, new national military cemetery. Within weeks, his staff identified Arlington Estate, the home of Confederate General Robert E Lee and the a traitor to the United States.

Lee’s estate had a number of things going for it. One of those was too good to pass up: the eternal irony of burying the war’s honored dead on the estate of the enemy army’s general. The estate was high and free from potential floods. It was near the nation’s capital; in fact, it overlooked it. The land and the rolling hills of the estate were quite pretty. And denying Lee his home after the war was incredibly politically popular. 

The First at Arlington

Thus, they buried the first U.S. soldier, William Henry Christman, on May 13, 1864. Soon, rows of the U.S. fallen dead lay within site of the mansion. For all that the Victorians didn’t mind visiting and picnicking in cemeteries, they certainly didn’t want to live in one.

Although the cemetery denied Lee use of his beloved home during his lifetime, the U.S. government generously compensated his heirs in the 1880s after a law suit that went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Interments at Arlington National Cemetery

As you tour Arlington, don’t take photos of interments out of respect. The photos I include here I took of my father’s interment. You see, this visit to Arlington was intensely personal. I went there to visit my father’s grave. Because we took the opportunity to tour Arlington, I decided to write about Arlington for MidAtlantic Daytrips as well.

Although Arlington is running out of space, it’s still an active national cemetery. In fact, there can be up 30 interments a day. You’ll notice that from a half-hour before the first to a half-hour after the last burial, the flag flies at half mast. If you see a funeral service, be respectful by staying at a distance. You may encounter a funeral procession, if so please step aside and wait for it to pass. If your exploration of the cemetery brings you near a funeral service, move to an area that is not the site of active mourning. Most interments are well outside of the most popular “touristy” sections of the cemetery.

Notable Burials and Must See Spots at Arlington

The best way to explore Arlington National Cemetery is to take the guided tram tour, which brings you to all the major noteworthy sections: the John F Kennedy grave site, Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s grave, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington House, President William Howard Taft’s grave, the Hill of Chaplains, among others.

You’ll notice that there are presidents, senators, supreme court justices (Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg among them) and everybody from admirals and astronauts to junior airmen. We were surprised that not all the grave stones were the standard white marble military issue. In fact, up until the last decade, you could opt to have a more elaborate grave marker. Now, due to space concerns, only the white marble headstones are permitted.

Know Before You Go

Burials occur at Arlington every day. And of course, it’s primarily a place of honor, grieving and reflection. Please follow these guidelines:

  • Speak quietly and use headphones if you are listening to something, so as not to distract or disturb other visitors. 
  • Enjoy the space appropriately. You definitely should explore the cemetery (you may walk on the grass to find a grave) and attend a public ceremony. However, please don’t do activities such as running, climbing, bicycling, playing sports or picnicking. 
  • Leave your pets at home. You may only bring approved service animals or military working dogs. 
  • Respect the property. Do not damage or sit on monuments, gravestones, plants or other property.  
  • Show respect to the flag. When a flag is used in a ceremony or service, or a bugler plays Taps, place your right hand over your heart. Military service members and veterans may salute.  
  • Drink water. Food and alcoholic beverages are not allowed. The cemetery grounds are vast, and the weather is often hot during the summer; stay hydrated! Bring bottled water or purchase it at the Welcome Center. The ANC Explorer mobile app will help you locate water fountains throughout the cemetery. Do not drink from spigots, as they do not contain potable water. 

Getting there: 1 Memorial Ave, Fort Myer, VA
Hours: daily, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Website: Arlington Cemetery

Looking for other tombstone tourism? Check out other cemeteries MidAtlantic Daytrips has visited.

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