JOURNEY JOURNAL... Arlington, Virginia
Certainly, this region’s name is instantly apt to bring to mind its preeminent historical burial grounds, Arlington National Cemetery. Here’s a place that may seem familiar to you even if you’ve never been there. Media coverage of dignitaries’ funeral events keeps it in the forefront of our awareness.
The mansion (now called the Arlington House) that had been the central structure on General Robert E. Lee’s confiscated estate, situated upon a hill behind the entrance, foretells the origination of this territory for burial of military personnel, beginning in 1864.
This tourist attraction serves as a testament to the fact that cemeteries can be lively destinations. Buses from different parts of the country are lined up in the parking lot and energetic school students exude vigor as they explore the territory. A visitor might want to prepare for a stroll through this sweeping landscape as if training for a marathon… or decide to traverse the grounds via an open-air tram or a bus-like “super-tram,” both of which have the added benefit of a tour guide.
Upon circulating through the grounds, one sees not only the symmetrical spreads of stone tablets that are common throughout national cemeteries around the country, but also traditional headstones situated in older sections. Sometimes statues dot the scenario as well.
A simple cross and flat marker identify the grave of Robert F. Kennedy, purportedly at his request. It is in the vicinity of President John F. Kennedy’s memorial, the Eternal Flame, which was constructed over his grave. He and President William Howard Taft are the only U.S. presidents buried in the cemetery. Others have chosen interment in their native states.
In contrast to Robert Kennedy’s inconspicuous marker, there is the venerable Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (aka The Tomb of Unknowns) that commands widespread attention and is perpetually guarded. A ceremonial changing of the guard occurs every half hour during the summer and every hour during winter months. The prospects for additional unknown soldiers may no longer exist, since DNA technology has advanced to the point where remains can be positively identified.
This military maneuver that bespeaks solemnity and dignity is marked by the exchange of a rifle that has been meticulously inspected to the nth degree of precision.
Behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the outdoor Memorial Amphitheater, where various memorial events take place. Every year an Easter sunrise service begins at 6a.m. and Memorial Day and Veterans Day services always begin at 11a.m. Memorial services are also conducted here by military organizations, as are funerals for famous Americans. Historical earmarks festoon an exhibit hall inside. A nonsectarian chapel is on the premises as well. In 1868 the first national Memorial Day commemoration was hosted in the cemetery’s original amphitheater, inaugurated in 1874, that this larger amphitheater has replaced.
Now, as Memorial Day weekend approaches and arrives, the cemetery will take on added significance. Military personnel, including members of the ceremonial Old Guard unit – the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment – will infiltrate these burial grounds to methodically position small American flags at every gravesite, in front of all memorial stones. A similar gesture of tribute occurs annually when Christmas wreaths are placed at gravesites, with a wreath-laying ceremony at noon on December 15th. Arlington Cemetery is one of hundreds of locations in the country where wreaths are delivered through a non-profit initiative, Wreaths Across America.