Head behind the Lincoln Memorial and walk over the Arlington Memorial Bridge into the state of Virginia to visit America's most sacred shrine, Arlington National Cemetery. Sombre, historic and beautiful, originally this land was an estate and working plantation belonging to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, and then his daughter Mary Anna who was married to Robert E Lee.
After the Civil War ended with Lee's surrender, the land was designated a national military cemetery for families who could not afford to bring their relative's body home (funeral ceremonies are still free of charge to this day). Today ANC is the nation's most prestigious place of rest for the Armed Forces.
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Who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery?
Today, approximately 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, dating from the Revolutionary Wars to the present day, and the rows and rows of neat white tomb stones are very moving. In December, volunteers lay Christmas wreaths on all of the grave sites as part of Wreaths Across America. We took the photo above in early January.
One of the most frequently visited burial sites is that of President JFK and his wife Jackie, who are buried with two of their young children beside an eternal flame and a wall inscribed with a section of Kennedy's inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
Other notable graves at Arlington include Supreme Court Justices feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall, the memorials for the crews of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an armed guard marches beside stone crypts containing the remains of unidentified servicemen from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. The Vietnam War crypt is empty after the remains were in fact identified in 1998 and reburied in the soldier's home town in Missouri.
Can anyone be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?
Burials at ANC are extremely sought after - about 25 -30 funerals take place every day!
Any serviceman or woman who has been honourably discharged can be cremated and inurned at one of Arlington's columbaria, but with available in-ground burial space rapidly dwindling in Arlington, (even with a new expansion, the cemetery predicts that it could be at full capacity by 2060), there are strict requirements regarding who can be buried there (these are potentially becoming even stricter - see below).
In order to have a ground burial at Arlington Cemetery, people must meet one of the following criteria:
A service member who has been killed in action
A veteran who has retired from the military (providing they were honourably discharged) and is receiving retirement pay
A veteran who has received the Purple Heart, Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross (Air Force or Navy), Distinguished Service Medal, or Silver Star.
Any former prisoner of war whose last period of service terminated honourably and who died on or after Nov. 30, 1993
Spouses of someone already buried in Arlington (providing they have not remarried) and their minor or permanently dependent children may also be buried in Arlington.
Presidents, Supreme Court Justices and Senators who served any active duty time in any branch can also be buried in ANC, although most choose to be buried in their own hometowns / family vaults. The only US Presidents buried in Arlington are William Taft and John F Kennedy - his wife Jackie Kennedy was eligible for burial because while she had remarried Aristotle Onassis , she had already been widowed again by the time she died.
With burial space becoming more and more limited, there are proposed changes that could restrict in ground burial further still, to prioritise those who were killed in action, combat veterans awarded the Silver Star or above, Purple Heart recipients and former POWs. Everyone else would need to be cremated and inurned in the columbaria, and this would even mean that Presidents could no longer be buried there unless they had previously undertaken active service (so George W Bush, yes, Clinton/Obama/Trump/Biden, no.)
Arlington Estate and Plantation
Until the Civil War, Arlington Estate was a working plantation with 100 enslaved African Americans. When Martha Washington died, they were included in her will as estate property and passed to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis and then Mary Anna and Robert E Lee. While Arlington House is still officially a national memorial to Lee, a 2021 renovation has refocused the information boards on the previously untold stories of the enslaved people of Arlington Estate.
Visiting Arlington Cemetery / Visitor etiquette:
Arlington National Cemetery is free to visit and welcomes respectful tourists and visitors. 3 million people per year come to explore the historic site! You will need to go through security at the visitor centre before entering the site, including an aeroplane style metal detector/bag scan. Don't bring large bags as there is no where to store them, and the usual knives/explosives etc are not allowed. Food and alcohol are also not permitted on site but there are numerous water fountains.
The site asks that you behave appropriately for a working cemetery and place of remembrance. Dogs (apart from service dogs), picnicking and sports are not permitted, and while it is fine to walk on the grass to approach a grave, you should not climb on the monuments. Also, while the Military Honours funereal processions are very impressive, they are not a tourist attraction and you should be respectful, keep out of the way and not take photographs or film.
How to get to Arlington National Cemetery / Opening times:
ANC is just outside of Washington DC, on the far side of the Potomac River in the state of Virginia.
Walking: Arlington is an easy walk from the Lincoln Memorial over Arlington Memorial Bridge - it should take you about 20 minutes.
Driving: There is paid parking available at the cemetery which is $3 per hour, max $12 per day.
Metrorail: Arlington National Cemetery is on the Metro blue line, and the station is very close to the Visitor Centre.
The Cemetery is open every day of the year, 8am - 5pm. The paths are all paved, and apart from a few steeper slopes, it's very wheelchair/buggy friendly. There is also a motorised tram that runs a 45 minute hop on hop off live narrated loop around the cemetery. Leaving from the Visitor Centre at the main entrance, it stops at 9 key points around the site including JFK's grave, Arlington House and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can buy tickets online or at the Visitor Centre.
Don't miss the Iwo Jima Memorial!
While you're over at Arlington National Cemetery, just 15 minutes walk away is probably one of the most recognisable military statues in the world. The Marine Corps War Memorial was inspired by the iconic photograph of six United States Marines raising the U.S. flag at the top of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
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