Travel, Virginia

Arlington National Cemetery: A Bucket List

Arlington National Cemetery is our nation’s most hallowed grounds. Filled with some of the bravest men and women our country has ever known, memorials to this nation’s greatest tragedies, and steeped in American history so sincere it feels personal.

The cemetery is under the control of the Department of the Army, while Arlington House is under the control of the National Park Service. Both administrations have done an excellent job of preventing the cheapening of this site to a tourist destination. A daunting task considering more than 3 million visitors come through Arlington every year.

Arlington covers more than 600 acres and contains more than 400,000 graves. Needless to say, there is no way to see all of Arlington in one visit.

Thankfully, every single grave site is photographed and carefully documented. Each grave can be easily located using the cemetery’s website or app.

Before our trip to Arlington, I made a list of notable graves and monuments to see while we were there.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On top of a hill overlooking the nation’s capital sits one of the most famous grave sites in the world. A white marble sarcophagus holds the remains of four unknown soldiers from WWI, WWII, the Korean, and Vietnam Wars.

Millions of visitors come to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay their respects to these unknown heroes and also to watch the famous Changing of the Guard Ceremony.

It was a time-honored, American tradition that we did not want to miss.

JFK’s Grave and Eternal Flame

One of the most notable graves at Arlington National Cemetery is former President John F. Kennedy. After his assassination in 1963, the President was laid to rest down the hill from the Arlington House overlooking Washington D.C.

JFK is one of two U.S Presidents buried at Arlington, the other is William Howard Taft. Buried next to President Kennedy is his wife, Jacqueline and his two deceased infant children. His brothers, Robert and Ted Kennedy are buried nearby. There is also a memorial for his older brother Joseph Kennedy, whose remains were never recovered from WWII.

At the head of President Kennedy’s grave is a flat granite stone, from which the eternal flame burns round the clock.

A special apparatus, designed by the Institute of Gas Technology, automatically reignites the flame if ever extinguished by rain or wind. The flame has burned continuously since President Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963 and shall burn until eternity.

It was definite must-see for our visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

McClellan Gate

McClellan Gate was the main entrance to the cemetery when it opened to the public in 1864.

This brick arch doesn’t seem very spectacular when compared to all of the other marvels in our Capital, but the 30 foot high gate was built in the 1860s and I’m glad that it still stands today.

Since we took a tram tour of the cemetery and only had a limited amount of time, we didn’t get off there. I did manage to get a picture of it as we drove past though.

The McClellan Gate at Arlington was the original entrance when the cemetery opened.

Audie Murphy’s Grave

My dad is a huge fan of old western movies and Audie Murphy starred in many of his favorites. We spent many evenings watching them with him.

However, until I started researching the cemetery before our trip I didn’t realize that Audie Murphy was buried at Arlington or that he was one of the most decorated war heroes in American history.

Murphy was a Medal of Honor recipient (the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action) for single-handedly killing 50 German soldiers in one attack, while wounded! Before the war ended, he earned a total of 28 medals, an unparalleled feat at that time.

I didn’t want to miss his grave while we were at Arlington.

Arlington House

The ‘big house’ at Arlington is the nation’s memorial to Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee.

Before Arlington became the nation’s most dignified cemetery, Lee lived there and ran the plantation with his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. During the war, the estate, captured by the Union Army, became a headquarters and encampment for Union forces.

Soon, the grounds were appropriated for use as a military cemetery. Not only did this solve the current issue of running out of space in cemeteries in Washington D.C, but would also render the plantation uninhabitable if the Lees ever tried to return.

The Arlington House is a beautiful mansion that sits atop a hill overlooking the Capital. I really wanted to see it during our trip to the Capital, but it was closed for renovations. Make sure you check the NPS website to see if it has re-opened before your visit.

(This picture is courtesy of nps.gov.)

Civil War Unknowns Monument

Near Arlington House, in what was once part of it’s famous rose garden is a memorial to unknown soldiers of the Civil War.

The masonry vault, dedicated in 1866, contains the remains of 2,111 soldiers from both the Union and Confederate Armies. These remains were gathered from the fields of Bull Run and the route to the Rappahannock River.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the Civil War Unknowns Monument during our visit, but hope to see it next time we’re there.

(This photo is courtesy of pixels.com.)

Iwo Jima Memorial

Most people know this memorial as the Iwo Jima Statue, but it’s actual name is the United State Marine Corps War Memorial. It is dedicated to all Marines that have fought and died since 1775.

This statue’s design was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning photo taken during the U.S invasion of Iwo Jima during WWII. After a battle that lasted more than four days, U.S forces successfully captured Mount Suribachi. Six exhausted Marines raised an American flag at it’s summit where the famous photo was taken and soon became one of the most iconic images in American history.

This monument isn’t technically in Arlington National Cemetery. It is located in Arlington Ridge Park, but it’s close enough outside the gates to walk to.

(This photo is courtesy of nps.gov.)

Section 27

Section 27 is the oldest section in Arlington National Cemetery and contains many notable graves.

There rests nearly 4,000 former slaves and 1,500 U.S. Colored Troops. It is also the site of the first military burial at Arlington. Private William Henry Christman, a black soldier from Pennysylvania was laid to rest in May of 1864.

Section 27 made my list, but due to the heat and irritability of my tired kids, we decided not to get off of the tram at this stop.

(This photo is courtesy of arlingtoncemetery.mil.)

Challenger Memorial

Just seconds after the Space Shuttle Challenger took off, in 1986, it exploded, killing all 7 crew members that were on board. It took nearly 2 months to recover their bodies from the ocean.

Two of the crew members are buried at Arlington – Captain Michael Smith and Francis ‘Dick’ Scobee. Unfortunately, the remains of the other 5 crew members were unidentifiable. The families cremated the remains and buried them in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery. A special monument was constructed and placed over the remains.

Although these men and women are not war heroes, they are American heroes nonetheless.

(This photo is courtesy of arlingtoncemetery.net.)

Niche Wall

Operating for more than 150 years, it’s understandable that Arlington National Cemetery has nearly filled its grounds. More than 400,000 people are buried there. Still, the cemetery hosts 27-30 funerals every day.

The Department of the Army is trying keep the cemetery open for new burials for as long as possible. Almost completely surrounded by the local community, there is not much room for expansion, but they were able to expand a little by building the Niche Wall or Columbarium.

It’s inevitable that Arlington will eventually run out of room. However, instead of running out of space in the 2020s, cemetery administrators estimate that they will be able to continue active burials until the 2050s thanks to the new Niche Wall.

The newest part of Arlington Cemetery is the Niche Wall.
(This photo is courtesy of arlnow.com.)

Section 60

Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, once called the saddest acre in America contains the graves of service members that died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This particular section is one of the most prominent sections, since it contains service members from our most recent and ongoing conflict(s). Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump visited this section of the cemetery, HBO made a documentary about and National Geographic wrote a piece about Section 60.

We didn’t get the opportunity to visit Section 60 during this visit to Arlington, but it’s definitely one that we won’t miss next time.

(This photo is courtesy of military.com.)

9/11 Memorial

On September 11, 2001, 184 people died during the attack on the Pentagon. Of those 184 people, 5 were never recovered. Those families were unable to bury their loved ones and I imagine that closure was difficult.

The cemetery erected the Pentagon memorial and gave a funeral service for all 184 people, with a special emphasis to the 5 that remain unrecovered. This memorial contains the names of all the people that passed away that day in the Pentagon and on Flight 77.

(This photo is courtesy of trolleytours.com.)

Our visit to Arlington National Cemetery was bittersweet experience. I am glad that we could witness the magnitude of the cost of our freedom, but it was extremely emotional.

We didn’t see many dry eyes in the cemetery that day through the tears in our own. Seeing Arlington National Cemetery was humbling. It felt good to honor and remember those that paid the ultimate price for this land that we love.

You can see what else we did on our trip to the Capital here:

12 Sites You Don't Want to Miss at Arlington National Cemetery | Finding Mandee
12 Must-See Sites at Arlington Cemetery | Finding Mandee

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