Arlington National Cemetery is the most recognizable of all the American veterans’ cemeteries and is the second largest national cemetery in the country.
Established in 1864, Arlington is the final resting place of more than 300,000 people, including veterans from all of our nation’s wars from the American Revolution through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Pre-Civil War veterans were re-interred after the cemetery was established.)
The land that is now Arlington National Cemetery originally belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington. He was the biological grandson of Martha Washington and her first husband.
In 1802 Custis began building a large home on the property that was completed in 1818. He and his wife spent the rest of their lives at Arlington House and were buried nearby after their deaths in the 1850s.
The couple’s daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis married Robert E. Lee and inherited the property from her parents. The Lees lived in the home until 1861 when Lee resigned his commission in the US Army. He would later become the highest ranking general in the Confederate Army.
After the Lees abandoned the property, it became one of the first headquarters of the Union Army. The Lees officially lost the rights to the property in 1864 after Mrs. Lee failed to pay taxes “in person.” Shortly afterwards, the Union Army began burying their dead at the property, ensuring that the Lees would never want to live in their home again.
Strict eligibility requirements dictate who can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Anyone killed in the line of duty is automatically eligible. Recipients of the following awards are also eligible: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star or Purple Heart. Veterans retired from active military service and their spouses and minor children also qualify.
Almost 30 funerals are held daily at Arlington, each with full military honors. All flags on the grounds are flown at half-staff beginning 30 minutes before the first funeral of the day until 30 minutes after the last funeral.
Standard white marble tombstones are provided by the government free of cost. The identical markers are set in perfect rows, symbolic of military soldiers standing at attention. Older sections of the cemetery permitted individual markers, but those sections are no longer available for burials.
Guided tours are offered at Arlington National Cemetery. Trams stop at the JFK gravesite, the Tomb of the Unkowns and Arlington House. Between stops, guides point out areas of interest and recount the history of the cemetery.
Additional sites include memorials to the victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, the Challenger and Discovery space shuttle disasters, and those who lost their lives in the failed attempt to free the Iran hostages in 1980.