First used as a burial place in 1864 during the Civil War, Arlington’s rolling hills rise above the Potomac River, just across from the nation’s capital. From the hills of the cemetery you can look over the trees to the Washington, DC Mall.
Why the Cemetery Opened
It’s significant that the cemetery opened during the Civil War when the Union took possession of Southern General Robert E. Lee’s home in Arlington. In his absence they buried Union soldiers in the yard. Today, more than 400,000 honored dead are in Arlington.
President John F. Kennedy’s Grave and the Eternal Flame
One of the most-visited grave sites is that of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, marked with the eternal flame. Kennedy stood on this hill shortly before his death and remarked that he could stay there forever in such a peaceful place. When he died, his family requested that same spot in Arlington for his final resting place.
The highlight of our time at Arlington was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb has been guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without a break since 1930. Military guards consider this such a privilege that they commit to living for this duty for two years. They are required to memorize the locations of more than 300 graves in Arlington and know the history of the military cemetery. The Changing of the Guard takes place every half hour from April to September and once an hour in the remaining months.
We arrived for the ceremony at the same time as a group of veterans from an Honor Flight. These Honor Flights to Washington, DC are free of charge to veterans, funded by donations. A family member or friend accompanies each veteran.
Most moving for me was seeing the interaction between the vets and the groups of school kids. As the vets moved down the pathway, the young people parted on either side of them. Greeting the vets with a respectful, “Thank you for your service,” the younger generation shook hands with the vets. I think this is an experience all ages will remember.
An Honor Flight from San Diego, where we live, attended the ceremony the day we were there. This group of 80 veterans of World War II and the Korean War ranged in age from 81 to 99. We enjoyed talking with this “young man” named Jack. He was so enthused to be there!
We headed to the Confederate section at the back of Arlington because the Civil War is a special interest of mine. Here more than 400 Confederate soldiers are buried. In 1914, the monument was dedicated by President Woodrow Wilson. The woman on the monument holds a laurel wreath symbolizing peace. This is meant to be a sign that North and South reconciled.
Wilson said at the dedication: “This chapter in the history of the United States is now closed, and I can bid you to turn with me with your faces to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood on opposite sides, we now face and admire one another.” This has sadly proved false, but this section of Arlington still seems to me to be one of hope for the future.
Arlington Cemetery is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April to September and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October to March.
Download the ANC Explorer app before your visit. You can locate graves or military areas and use audio guided tours. We wanted to find the memorial for the Battle of the Bulge and were able to locate it easily.
A tour bus is available for a route that takes you to several points throughout the cemetery. It’s $13.50 for adults and $6.75 for children. If you are going to the far corners of the cemetery, this would save a lot of steps.
For more information, visit Arlington’s comprehensive website.