Memorial Day, a federal holiday established after the Civil War, is a day we honor the service, sacrifice, and immeasurable courage of all those Americans who lost their lives while in military service. This month, 150 years ago, the first military burial took place at Arlington National Cemetery. Although we knew there would be throngs of people visiting this weekend, and there were, we felt compelled to walk these hallowed grounds, to honor the fallen and their selfless service.
As we entered the visitor center, packed with those here to pay their respects, we knew we would need to return at a later date to take in the exhibits at a much more leisurely pace.
Beyond the doors of the visitor center, rolling verdant hills, dotted with countless white headstones adorned with small American flags, grace the landscape. More than 400,000 active-duty, veterans, and their families lie beneath these grassy slopes, a profoundly beautiful and peaceful final resting place. Immaculate gardens with trees hundreds of years old pay tribute to those who sacrificed everything.
On any given weekday, as many as 30 funeral services are performed at Arlington. As we walked along one of the many paths winding through the gardens, a somber sight met our eyes, servicemen marching in unison, followed by a horse-drawn caisson carrying a flag-draped casket. A riderless horse slowly walked behind, one lone boot strapped to the saddle. The sense of loss was felt as the funeral procession passed by. Three rifle volleys and the mournful sound of a lone bugler playing Taps accompanied the service.
The Tomb of the Unknowns sits high on a hill overlooking Washington DC, one of the most well-attended sites within Arlington. Within this crypt lie the remains of unknown servicemen from World War I, II, and the Korean War. Soldiers from the 3rd U. S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) maintain a 24-hour, 365-day long vigil, with an elaborate ritual changing the guard taking place every 30 minutes. The poor lighting conditions and the throngs of visitors made it impossible to get good photos but I was thankful to witness this memorable ceremony.
Rising above the Potomac River on a lush hillside stands the impressive Arlington House, where Robert E. Lee and wife lived out their years caring for her family home. Standing outside the front door you look out over the Washington Monument and the Capitol and at the base of this grassy hilltop the Eternal Flame flickers, site where President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest, one of only two Presidents interred at Arlington. Many thought the family plot in Massachusetts would be the burial site but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy felt “he belongs to the people” so Arlington was chosen, and the lovely Jacqueline is buried at his side.
On this most somber of holidays, we remember the fallen and our thoughts go out to the loved ones who live with the gravity of their loss.