Arlington Cemetery, where every day is Memorial Day

Shortly before claiming a peaceful space here, Casey Joyce was half a world away from his wife, DeAnna, desperately missing her and searching for words to say it in a letter that was never mailed: “I want you to know that I want to grow old with you.”

The U.S. Army ranger now lies under a standard white government-issued headstone (section 60, grave 5791), lost in an ocean of perfectly aligned rows, hundreds of yards from view for most of the 4.5 million tourists who stream through this cemetery each year.

The theme of sacrifice, what Lincoln called that “last full measure of devotion,” that Arlington visitors absorb at every turn and that marks Memorial Day events here this weekend, was for Joyce simply the surrender of all dreams following October 3, 1993. That day, as superbly recounted by Mark Bowden in Black Hawk Down (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24), Joyce was shot through the heart during savage street fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Far from a simple “bivouac of the dead,” as words on the red-stoned McClellan Gate declare, Arlington cemetery is more alive with remembrance now than ever. Not since the darkest days of Vietnam have the casket-bearing caissons, pulled by black Morgans and powerful Shires 16 hands high at the shoulders, worked at a more furious pace. Twenty-two to 24 funerals are conducted Monday through Friday, the pace quickening as more World War II veterans — their hearts “touched by fire,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes (Section 5, grave 7004A) said of Civil War survivors like himself — pass away.

It keeps the American flag at Arlington at half-staff all day, every day except weekends.

Paying homage

With a swelling of tourism has come a steady increase in requests to lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Three thousand are done annually. It seems that nearly every hour sentinels in ceremonial blues escort the latest quartet of garland-bearing schoolchildren to the sepulcher with its American war dead “known but to God.” The circlets are queued up along the marble nearby.

Dan Druen, a 29-year-old sergeant in the 3rd Infantry, the legendary Old Guard, is an assistant commander of Tomb sentinels, those immaculate soldiers performing the ritual of guarding the “unknowns” with 21 paces, a quarter-turn and 21-second pause, another quarter-turn and 21-second pause, then 21 paces back.

“There's that one time when you look up and you see a couple little boys, or a little girl and boy, who are just in awe,” Druen says. “That's the time you remember what you're there for.”

Still, says Arlington National Cemetery historian Tom Sherlock, visitors run the risk in the bustle of Tourmobiles and tightly budgeted times of seeing headstones only in the aggregate and missing the ordinary eloquence of hopes left buried in the ground. They were young people confused and frightened, with the same longings and convictions, disappointments and doubts as anyone — the Army general memorialized after a lifetime of service simply as he began, as the 9-year-old Drummer Boy of Chickamauga (Section 2, grave 933); or the Peruvian immigrant who dreamed of citizenship and died fighting with the 82nd Airborne Division in Panama (Section 60, grave 2992); or the Pennsylvania infantryman killed by peritonitis after 90 days of volunteer service, who became the first soldier buried here on May 13, 1864 (Section 27, grave 19).

“(If) you come here to Arlington and see them as young people, you realize that they are us. If you're proud of our military, you're proud of yourself,” Sherlock says. “It may be a name that you just read and remember for 15 seconds, but for those 15 seconds… in essence, you're keeping their memory alive.”

Arlington cemetery's place as tourist-crowded national shrine took seed the moment Jacqueline Kennedy visited the slope below the Lee mansion in 1963 and, with a wordless nod of her head, consented to the burial of her slain husband there (Section 45, grave S-45). Nine million visitors would overwhelm the cemetery in the next six months. By 1965, its narrow
roadways would be forever closed to unrestricted visitor auto traffic.

Tourmobiles that crisscross a relatively small portion of the cemetery's 612 acres today carry tourists to a simple triumvirate of sites: the Kennedy grave, the Tomb of the Unknowns and the mansion, called Arlington House.

Civil War start

A neoclassical home with a portico visible from across Washington, Arlington House was completed in 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis, the step grandson of George Washington, and later inherited by Custis' daughter, Mary Lee. Her husband was Robert E. Lee, and it was in the second-floor master suite, which overlooks Mary Lee's beloved rose garden, where he drafted a letter in April 1861 resigning from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy.

Three years later, as thousands of Northern dead from a spring offensive against Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia threatened to transform Washington into a charnel house, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs chose Lee's estate as a burial ground. Mary Lee's cherished garden became a resting place for slain Union officers. That fall, Meigs buried at Arlington his 22-year-old son, John (Section1, grave 1), killed in combat.

After Kennedy's assassination and the advent of Vietnam, daily burial rates peaked at 28 in 1967. That winter, on February 17, 1968, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam was searching for the body of a missing soldier when he died amid a rocket attack and small-arms fire. Today, Lieutenant Richard Pershing lies on a grassy knoll under the same kind of government-issued headstone as the man beside him, his grandfather and World War I General of the Armies John J. Pershing (both in Section 34, grave S-19), the only person besides George Washington to hold that rank.

Sherlock refers to these ubiquitous tombstones that mark the graves of generals and GIs alike as a kind of democracy in death.

But there are many ways Arlington speaks to war and duty's blind eye toward rank, race and gender. On the cemetery's fringes are rows of buried Civil War soldiers (three Medal of Honor winners among them) whose headstones identify them simply as U.S.C.T. — United States Colored Troops.

At the end of Memorial Drive, near the cemetery entrance, is the Women in Military Service memorial created three years ago. Touch-screens there tell the stories of 300,000 women who served the United States in time of war.

Among them is Army Major Marie Rossi, who commanded a Chinook helicopter crew that flew supplies behind enemy lines during the Persian Gulf War. On March 1, 1991, the copter crashed into an unlit tower at night during bad weather. An image of a Chinook is carved into Rossi's headstone (Section 8, grave 9872).

“The way I would tell somebody to see the cemetery is on foot,” says Sherlock. “Get off the beaten track and take the time and just walk out into a section and read the names.”

Down the slope from the Tomb of the Unknowns, across Grant Drive and 14 rows in, lies Michael Strank (Section 12, grave 7179), the son of a Czechoslovak immigrant and a Marine Corps sergeant killed on March 1, 1945, in a mortar shell explosion on Iwo Jima. He was 25 and rests between veterans of World War I and Vietnam. His help, with four other Marines and a Navy corpsman, in raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, is immortalized in a spectacular, 78-foot bronze sculpture less than a mile from his modest grave site.

Burials today

From Strank's grave site east, hardly an hour or two passes without a full-honor funeral passing by. In this direction lie the colombarium, or sepulcher for urns, and the last vacant fields.

“It's a nice place to be,” says George Driskill, 75, a Korean War veteran who received a Purple Heart for a Chinese rifle shot through the shoulder. He comes almost every day to tend the grave where his wife, Rose, was interred 2 1/2 years ago. (Many soldiers are preceded in death by wives at Arlington. One four-star general was preceded by three, buried by a fourth.)

Driskill sometimes snaps pictures of the majestic funerals as they pass, always the same: first a military band, perhaps playing a hymn like Amazing Grace or a military anthem; then six paces and a color guard with flags waving; six more paces and a column of troops ceremonially attired; 24 paces and a chaplain; 24 more and the caisson. Sometimes there is a caparisoned horse, the riderless equine made famous in the Kennedy funeral, with empty boots backwards in the stirrups.

The burial of a general or admiral will bring out the howitzers for a cannon salute. Otherwise, there will be seven rifles fired in three volleys over the heart of the deceased and a lone bugler playing Taps.

“We wouldn't be where we are today without sacrifices of all the people who are buried here,” says Linda Willey, head of a group of Air Force spouses (the Army and Navy have their own versions) who send a member to attend each funeral, so no one is buried alone. “Each one is a special story and needs to be remembered and cared for lovingly.”

There are 265,000 people buried here, and 60,000 grave sites remain, says cemetery Superintendent John Metzler, who grew up at Arlington when his father was superintendent. Graves will be filled by 2025. “We are trying to plan now for what happens after,” he says. The hope is that the cemetery can be expanded.

There are succeeding generations of war veterans to anticipate, Metzler says. And there will always be those like David Gibbs, of Massillon, Ohio, who joined the Marines on the Fourth of July 1980. Later switching to the Army to fly helicopters, he eventually piloted one of the Apaches dispatched to Albania last month. Married and the father of three, Gibbs, 38, worried in letters home about the dangerous terrain and their readiness. Three weeks ago, during a night training mission, Gibbs and a crewmate died in a fiery crash, the first NATO deaths in the Kosovo campaign. Gibbs rests on a gentle slope here (Section 66, grave 5753).


Any trip to Arlington National Cemetery begins at the visitor center near the entrance gate. Here there is historical information, data on grave site locations, a bookshop, tickets for Tourmobiles and a new three-year exhibit on the ritual of Taps. Sponsored by the Air Force, the display focuses on the historical role of the military bugle and the solemn musical piece played at graveside. Artifacts include the bugle that sounded Taps at the funeral of John F. Kennedy.


The cemetery is directly west across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall. If you're traveling north, exit off the George Washington Parkway; from the south, off Highway 110; and from Washington, D.C., cross Memorial Bridge. The Metro Blue line stops at the cemetery.


Open daily; 8 a.m to 7 p.m. from April 1 to Sept. 30; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. If you don't like crowds, the best days to visit are Monday through Wednesday.

ADMISSION: Free. Temporary passes for driving into the cemetery are available for disabled visitors or people wishing to visit a grave site. Tourmobile tickets, $4.75, adult; $2.25, children 3-11; 703-979-0690.

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment