Arlington National Cemetery
By P.J. Thomas
Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), located in Arlington, Virginia, was established in 1864 on the orders of President Lincoln as a final resting place for America’s military heroes. Two hundred acres of land which once belong to General Robert E. Lee who had abandoned Arlington House by 1861 during the Civil War years, was set aside for burial of fallen soldiers.
“Arlington National Cemetery tells the history of America and its military through the monuments and graves,” said Dr. Stephen Carney.
When President John F. Kennedy visited the cemetery, he reportedly said it was so beautiful he could spend the rest of his life there. After his assassination in 1963, the Kennedy family buried him there rather than the Massachusetts family plot a decision which greatly increased the prestige and stature of Arlington National Cemetery.
Burials of military officers and enlisted men increased, but include only two presidents—Kennedy and William Taft. ANC, however, is the final resting place of many notable Americans including Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, their brother Joseph, and Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Warren Earl Burger, Earl Warren and many spouses.
The boxer Joe Louis is buried at Arlington beneath a large, grandiose headstone located near the plain white marble headstone of actor Lee Marvin. Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers is also buried at Arlington, as well as Admiral Perry and Matthew Henson, an African American who was with Perry step-by-step on his trek to be the first to reach the North Pole.
But perhaps the symbol of the nation’s honored dead are most notably represented in the rows and rows of clean, white, marble headstones.
One of the most interesting aspects of the cemetery, and there are many, is a parcel of land on the Arlington Estate that was once home to 3,000 fugitive and liberated Black Americans. This Freedman’s Village was established by the U.S. government and subsequently dedicated on December 4, 1863. The village was run by the Freedman’s Bureau for most of its existence and was a well-organized, self-sufficient community with homes, a hospital, church, training center and school.
The United States Colored Troops (many of whom are buried in Arlington) guarded the Blacks from fugitive slave hunters. After the Civil War, interest in helping Blacks find employment, establish businesses and get an education waned and the residents of Freedman’s Village were given a 90-day notice to leave and the village was closed in 1900.
Employees of the ANC incurred the nation’s wrath when it was revealed poorly-kept cemetery records could not reveal the exact location of the gravesites.
“The ANC was keeping records on hand written 3×5 index cards and employees were still typing on typewriters”, said Jennifer Lynch, Public Affairs Officers for the cemetery.
Today, however, a new application, ANC Explorer, a GPS tracking system, allows family members or the general public to quickly locate the gravesite of a loved one, zoom onto its exact location and even view the front and back of the headstone. The ANC Explorer application can be launched on a mobile device or through a computer browser.
In addition, the entire records department has been reorganized and an intricate system of tracking the deceased remains is employed to insure complete and accurate recordkeeping.
A Family Service Center assists in the funeral and burial process. Family and friends unable to attend a burial service can view the ceremony online after receiving a password.
As beautiful as the manicured grounds are, ANC is much more than historical markers and graves sites. Each day the cemetery conducts an average of 27 burials including fallen heroes who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some ceremonies are small, private affairs where a few family members gather in black clothing and stand solemnly around an urn of cremated ashes. While others are full-blown military processions with a horse drawn carriage and a 21-gun salute.
A poignant scene witnessed during a visit was that of a young woman lying at the foot of a grave where fresh flowers had been placed at the headstone, and a man bowed by age holding the hand of a young boy as they exited the section where the fallen soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
Arlington also contains 8,000 stately Cherry Blossom, and Oak and Maple trees have provided grace, beauty and stature to the cemetery for hundreds of years.
An Arlington Oak tree provides shade for President Kennedy’s gravesite, and a Cedar of Lebanon tree was planted to honor the casualties of the 1983 Marine Corp barracks bombing in Beirut. A 300-year-old Oak tree, located close to President William Taft’s grave, is believed to be the oldest tree in the cemetery. While the most popular trees are the flowering white and pink dogwoods.
Families whose loved ones honor the nation through monuments of stone, often purchase trees and have them planted in their memory.
These trees whisper the story of slavery and freedom through leaves, roots and branches.
What you should know:
May 12-18 is the kickoff for the 150th Anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery. It will be celebrated with a wreath laying ceremony likely by President Barack Obama who has participated in the Memorial Day Ceremony during each year of his presidency.
Visitors to the cemetery can choose from three tours: A walking tour, an off-the-beaten path tour which takes visitors around the perimeter and a MART tour, a riding tour which stops at key locations through the cemetery, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the gravesite of actor Audy Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers in World War II.
Private cars are prohibited from the cemetery unless a party of a funeral procession. Parking is available at the on-site garage.
Stop first at the Welcome Center to obtain tour tickets, maps and to view exhibits.
The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes places every half hour.
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA 22211
Hours: 7 days a week/365 days
8am – 7 pm (Apr-Sep)