MEMORIAL DAY, USA | Darrin Henry
Memorial Day in the USA is a public holiday held every year on the last Monday in May, created to remember those who gave their lives in the American Civil War (1861-1865) but in the years since has been widened to include all subsequent conflicts.
Memorial Day started out as “Decoration Day” on 30 May, 1868, marked by a ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery; the term “Memorial Day” then becoming popular from 1882.
The rows of white headstones in Arlington have today become one of the iconic images of the US. While visiting Washington DC in 2015, we took the short subway ride to Arlington Metro station and spent the afternoon exploring the historic burial site.
The first thing we realised is that Arlington is huge! There are even tour buses (shuttles, as the Americans call them) that set off from the entrance area to save walking. We decided to do it on foot, a much better way we felt to absorb the place.
The cemetery takes up 624 acres of elevated land, chosen as it would be clear of potential flooding. Arlington’s address is the state of Virginia, but it’s right on the state line with Washington DC on the other side of the Potomac River, with a clear view of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other well known monuments.
In fact it’s a great place to get a sense of the size and layout of Washington and you quickly realise how compact the central attractions are. The low slung profile of the Pentagon can easily be seen from one of the hill tops in the cemetery.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The focal point of Arlington is the 1,500-seater, Arlington Memorial Amphitheatre, made of white marble that is quite blinding in the bright summer sun. The ‘Tomb of the Unknown’ also forms part of the Amphitheatre, which is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by sentinels of the US Army, as it has been since 2 July, 1937. The guards are as perfectly immaculate and mechanised as if they were life sized toy soldiers. Their 21 pace marching ritual, back and forth, in front of the ‘Tomb of the Unknown’ is a captivating spectacle.
Also part of the Amphitheatre is an interesting visitor centre.
Incredibly, 27-30 funerals take place at Arlington every weekday. That’s around 6,900 burials each year. It’s the second largest burial ground in the US and the largest military cemetery. The property has been expanded many times since the cemetery was established and the first military burial on 13 May, 1864, to meet the demand of burial plots. Today, Arlington is now the final resting place for 400,000 military personnel and their immediate family. There is a strict eligibility criteria for interment and inurnment at Arlington.
Who Is Buried In Arlington?
Arlington is also the final resting place of many prominent figures from America’s military history. These names include Marguerite Higgins, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and only female correspondent during the Korean War; Adolphus W Greely, the Arctic explorer (1881) and a founder of the National Geographic Society; Lt Col Francis R (Dick) Scobee, killed in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of January, 1986.
Seven US presidents and their families have been laid to rest in Arlington. President John F Kennedy’s grave, which is marked by an ‘eternal flame,’ is one of the most visited sites in the cemetery.
The cemetery is open 365 days a year, admission is free. Today, on Memorial Day 2016, thousands of those visitors will attend remembrance services that will be held in the Memorial Amphitheatre, as they are every year.
We spent about three hours exploring Arlington National Cemetery. It felt a little weird to begin with, so many tourists visiting a cemetery, but there was an obvious deferential tone to everyone’s conduct which made it ok. Of course, aside from tourists, many would have been there paying their respects. I’m glad we visited.