9 Fascinating Facts about Arlington National Cemetery

The final resting place for thousands of American active-duty service members, veterans and their families, Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most moving, memorable sights for visitors to the capital region.

Its rolling, forested hills lie just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., with the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington House (The Robert E. Lee Memorial) in view on the north and south ends of Memorial Bridge. Following are answers to questions that visitors frequently ask about the cemetery.

1. Who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

More than 400,000 people are laid to rest at the cemetery’s rolling hills, including those who fought in the Civil War, all joined by the tie of service to the United States. Veterans and their eligible family members rest with dignity and honor, a reminder of the service, sacrifice and valor of those who defended and protected freedom. Active, retired and former members of the armed forces, Medal of Honor recipients, high-ranking federal government officials and their dependents are among those who have been honored this way.

autumn foliage at Arlington National Cemetery

2. What is the columned mansion at the top of the hill in the cemetery?

Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, was General Robert E. Lee’s home until the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, when Lee vacated the estate. First owned by George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George Washington, Arlington House later was inherited by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who married Robert E. Lee.

Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington Cemetery

As area cemeteries filled to capacity in 1864, the Union Army began burying soldiers along the northern border of the Arlington estate. Later, in hopes of preventing the Lees from resuming control over the mansion, the Army placed graves as close to the mansion as possible, including in Mrs. Lee’s rose garden, to make the house uninhabitable.

3. Are funerals still conducted at Arlington National Cemetery?

As you walk through the cemetery, you may hear the firing of rifle volleys in the distance or see a flag-draped casket atop a horse-drawn caisson. A lone bugler plays Taps.

military bugle salute courtesy of Arlington National Cemetery

As many as 25 to 30 services occur each weekday fulfilling the cemetery’s primary mission, and visitors are required to observe federal regulations on decorum and decency. Posted signs that say “Silence and respect” surround the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Funeral services are generally held daily, except Sundays and federal holidays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

4. Are the flags always at half-staff in the cemetery?

The flags in Arlington National Cemetery are flown at half-staff from a half hour before the first funeral until a half hour after the last funeral each service.

Only two flagpoles are located in Arlington National Cemetery. The Woodhull flagpole rises 90 feet above the south lawn of the Memorial Amphitheater near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the other stands in front of Arlington House. Individuals can request a flag to be flown over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

5. What is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

Even if two feet of snow hits the Washington, D.C. area or temperatures rise above 100 degrees, sentinels from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) stay outside no matter what. Their job is to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day, every day of the year, in any weather, in full dress uniform with an M-14 rifle. They march for 21 paces in front of the tomb, face north to stand at attention for 21 seconds, then march 21 paces back.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a memorial to the dead of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Inscribed on it are the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

6. When is the Changing of the Guard?

Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who are required to memorize seven pages of cemetery history in their trial phase and recite it verbatim before earning their post, conduct the Changing of the Guard once each hour on the hour starting Oct. 1. In summer, they conduct the ceremony every half hour. Visitors can observe the Changing of the Guard, a moving ritual guaranteed to inspire you.

7. Which noteworthy historical figures are buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

A wide array of notable graves are located at Arlington National Cemetery, from Gen. George C. Marshall, American statesman and soldier during and after World War II, to Pierre L’Enfant, a French-American military engineer who designed the urban layout for Washington, D.C. Among others:

Presidents and First Ladies

  • President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
  • President William Howard Taft and Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft

Actors, Artists, Authors, & Scientists

  • Dashiell Hammett, author and veteran of both World War I and II
  • Glenn Miller, noted composer and big band leader (headstone)
  • Audie Murphy, actor and most decorated US soldier of World War II
  • Walter Reed, pioneering bacteriologist

Civil Rights Leaders

  • Medgar Evers, murdered civil rights leader
  • Allard Lowenstein, New York congressman
  • Lemuel A. Penn, African-American educator

Jurists

  • Warren Burger, Supreme Court chief justice
  • Thurgood Marshall, first African-American Supreme Court justice
  • William Rehnquist, Supreme Court chief justice
  • Earl Warren, Supreme Court chief justice

Sports Figures

  • Joe Louis, former boxing heavyweight champion of the world
  • Abner Doubleday, credited with having invented baseball

Women

  • Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown, first African American female to attain general officer rank Mary
  • Randolph, first recorded person buried on the grounds that became Arlington Cemetery

8. What is the eternal flame?

Cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge from Washington, D.C. into Arlington on a clear night, and you can see a flickering flame atop the hill in Arlington National Cemetery. The eternal flame, lighted by Mrs. Kennedy on Nov. 25, 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, burns from the granite stone at the head of the president’s grave. The nozzle and electric ignition system includes a constantly flashing electric spark that relights the natural gas if the flame in case of rain, wind or accidents.

gravesite of John F. Kennedy

The assassination of President Kennedy, at age 46, stunned the nation. His gravesite, with its vista overlooking Washington, D.C., includes engraved words from some of his speeches that bring life to the memorial. Buried there are two of Kennedy’s four children and his widow. Nearby is a memorial to his brother Joseph, killed in World War II; and the graves of his brothers, Sens. Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated in 1968) and Edward M. Kennedy, who met eligibility requirements because of their military and political service to the nation.

Vista perspective from Arlington Cemetery

9. What are my options for exploring Arlington National Cemetery?

Take Metro to the Arlington National Cemetery stop which puts you within steps of the Welcome Center. From there, grab a map or use the Arlington National Cemetery app to locate specific gravesites or simply follow the signs to memorials such as Arlington House, the JFK gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You can purchase a narrated tour of the cemetery via trolley on Arlington National Cemetery Tours, which makes navigating the hilly terrain easier. Most people spent two or three hours visiting Arlington National Cemetery and watching the Changing of the Guard.

All images courtesy of Arlington National Cemetery

Author: Kathleen Murphy