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Arlington National Cemetery

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Unknown, Arlington National Cemetery
Peter Gridley/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The American flag flutters at half-staff more often than not at one of the nation’s top tourist spots, and the mournful strains of “Taps” is likely to arouse conflicting emotions in visitors’ hearts. Is it sorrow they should feel, or pride for the heroes buried there?

More than 285,000 people have been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Across its rolling hills stand the unadorned headstones of veterans from the Revolutionary War to the current struggle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The people buried here are remembered every single day. That brings families a lot of comfort,” said Tom Sherlock, the cemetery’s historian.

The Beginning

Arlington National Cemetery was just a potter’s field at its start in May 1864. So bloody was the Civil War that existing cemeteries grew over-crowded, and many families were too poor to have Soldier’s bodies shipped home for burial. The urgent need for land led then-Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to declare that the property around Arlington House be used as a military graveyard.

Within two months 2,500 Soldiers had been buried at Arlington and by the war’s end a year later, more than 5,000 men had been interred there. The number mounted as bodies were collected and moved to the cemetery from temporary graves. Of all the Civil War dead buried in Arlington Cemetery, about 4,000 are unknown.

The first funerals held at Arlington weren’t the refined, honorable affairs they’re known to be today. Government-issued headstones were then wooden, and names were often misspelled.

Only upon the deaths of Civil War survivors did the cemetery begin its ascent as a national shrine.

“Dying generals wanted to be buried near their comrades and in the area of Arlington,” Sherlock said.

Today Arlington is the preferred burial site for many of America’s veterans. Soldiers from every war – of every age, sex, race and creed – are buried there.

Many veterans dream of being buried here,” said John C. Metzler, the cemetery’s superintendent. “These grounds speak of dignity and respect, and the magnitude of the cemetery guarantees that America will never forget service members’ sacrifices.”

Approximately 25 funerals occur each day at Arlington. Some of these are final farewells to older veterans. More than 50 recent funerals have been for service members killed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Metzler said.

Of the 184 people who died in the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, 64 are buried in Arlington. Fifty of those victims are located in Section 64, which overlooks the Pentagon’s west side where the hijacked plane crashed.

The headstones carry the names of two U.S. presidents, explorers, literary figures, astronauts, Supreme Court justices, World War II hero Audi Murphy and big-band leader Glenn Miller.

Section 27 holds the remains of nearly 3,800 former slaves who lived and farmed in Freedman’s Village during and after the Civil War. This piece of Arlington land was sectioned off and given to the slaves by the federal government. So as not to be confused with the graves of “heroes,” their headstones were marked “citizen” or “civilian.”

Burial at Arlington National Cemetery

Burial at Arlington National Cemetery is an exclusive honor, restricted to honorably discharged service members who fit the following categories:

  • Service members who die on active duty, except those on duty for training purposes only

  • Active-duty Retirees

  • Reserve retirees age 60 and above who are drawing retired pay at the time of death and who have served a period of active duty for more than training purposes

  • Veterans who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star or Purple Heart

  • Former Prisoners of war who died on or after November 30, 1993

  • Widows and widowers of service members who are officially determined missing in action

  • Spouses, widows, widowers, minor children, permanently dependent children and certain unmarried adult children of eligible veterans (when spouses or children die first, service members must agree in writing to be buried at the same site)

  • When certain conditions are met, service members may be buried in the same grave with a close relative already buried at the cemetery.

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