Last week I wrote about some of the many presidential monuments and war memorials in Washington, DC. I shared statistics such as the 54,000 American soldiers killed during the three-year Korean War and the staggering 400,000 who gave their lives during World War II. It is difficult to comprehend losses of that magnitude, so many young men and women simply gone. Many lie under the former battlefields of Europe, rows of white crosses punctuated by Stars of David flowing across the now-peaceful landscape. I visited the American Cemetery in Luxembourg where General Patton is buried with 5,000 of the men he led in battle.
As sobering as that sight was, imagine Arlington National Cemetery, the 624 acre memorial park where more than 300,000 people have been laid to rest. The graves are marked with uniform white tombstones, aligned in seemingly endless rows over the undulating hills. The cemetery is dotted with ancient trees and beds of colorful flowers, making it a serenely beautiful place to wander.
Active-duty veterans of the United States Armed Forces and their families are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Walking among the graves, you’ll find soldiers from every conflict since the Civil War. The country’s premiere military cemetery was first established in 1864 by the Union general in command of the garrison at Arlington House, the confiscated family home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. One of the earliest memorials on the property stands above a mass grave of unknown Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas. More Civil War-era tombstones line the perimeter around the Lees’ rose garden.
The original Arlington House still stands on the highest hill overlooking Washington, DC. Built in 1802, it was likely saved from destruction by Union troops because the original owner of the house was George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. The mansion has been fully restored to the time Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, daughter of George Custis, lived there. Free guided tours are led by park rangers, who sometimes wear period dress. It’s a fascinating time capsule of antebellum life.
At the bottom of the hill directly below Arlington House lie the graves of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and two of their infant children who were reburied beside them. An Eternal Flame, lighted by Mrs. Kennedy after the president’s funeral, burns at the head of the grave plot to honor his memory.
JFK’s brother, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, is buried a short distance away. Bobby, a U.S. Senator and World War II veteran, was also shockingly assassinated in the 1960s. His grave is marked with a marble footstone and a simple white cross. Their brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, a U.S. Senator for 43 years, is buried nearby with an identical grave marker. A memorial stone for the eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr, who was killed in action during World War II, was added to the site so all the brothers could be together. It’s a very touching tribute to one of America’s most revered political families.
While the only other U.S. president buried here is William Howard Taft (served 1908-1912), there are many other notable graves and memorials on the grounds honoring important individuals and significant events in American history. The saddest to me personally is the memorial to the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded during the launch in 1986, killing all seven crew members on board. Among them was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a civilian set to become the first teacher in space. Elementary school classes like mine watched the live broadcast of the launch and subsequent explosion in horror. I vividly recall my teacher running from the room in tears.
Near the Challenger Memorial stands a monument to the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry in 2003. A memorial to the brave men and women who died in the effort to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1979 is also located here.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is among the most famous memorials at Arlington National Cemetery. An unidentified American casualty of World War I was interred in 1921 to honor all the servicemen who gave their lives. Crypts were later added with unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The unknown solider from the Vietnam War was later identified through DNA testing, a technique that may make such memorials less likely in the future.
U.S. Marines keep a constant vigil, standing guard over the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An elaborate Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every hour and, if you’re lucky, you might even get to witness a wreath laying ceremony. While observing these services, please remember to stand and maintain a respectful silence.
Have you visited Arlington Cemetery? What were your impressions?