Charles Osgood

(CBS) Every year in Arlington Cemetery on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, the 3rd U.S. Infantry, The Old Guard, performs a ritual that has been handed down for generations. CBS News Sunday Morning Co-Anchor Charles Osgood explores the tradition behind the sacred soldiers' cemetery.

An American flag is placed precisely the measure of a boot from each headstone. They call it “flags in.”

This is where ritual is observed with the utmost respect, and where tradition takes on a whole new significance. Arlington is where the people of the United States honor the soldiers who have kept them united.

Four and a half million people come to Arlington every year, and for a moment, become a part of it. But there is a private side to this public place.

“The most important thing to each and every one of us is a funeral service,” says Tom Sherlock, the historian of Arlington. “We're a cemetery. That's our primary mission and that's where we want to channel all of our energies.”

Besides keeping the tourists a distance from grieving families, Arlington strives to maintain an air of intimacy for an average 22 funerals a day.

“If we do have one that's in the very heart of the cemetery, very close to the Kennedy grave or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the honor guards will provide soldiers and sailors or airmen and they'll very quietly and discreetly ask the people to go around the area,” Sherlock continues. “When the families are here, we want them to feel that's the only thing going on in the cemetery that day.”

Those whose service qualifies them to be buried at Arlington are given a hero's funeral that is inspiring in its tradition. The branch in which the deceased served provides for an escort platoon, casket team, military band, firing party, bugler, and chaplain: a detail of around 60 people. If a caisson is used, it is supplied by the Army.

The caisson platoon is the last unit of horse soldiers in the American military. They are also part of the old guard, which is stationed at Fort Meyer, alongside Arlington. “Before it goes out of here, it has to be completely spit shined so they can almost see their face in it,” says Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Sowles.

If the person honored was Army or Marines, colonel rank or higher, there is a rider-less horse.

“We reverse the boots and the stirrups signifying that the commander is looking back at his troops one last time, also signifying that the rider will never ride again,” Sowles explains. “We put the sharpest soldier we have walking him down the street, because he's the person closest to the family members in the funeral procession as they're going down the street. We want to leave the most favorable impression for the family as they go to that final walk.”

Every ritual in a military funeral echoes of history. “The flag-draped casket goes back to the Civil War when there was actually a shortage of caskets, and they would drape the bodies of the dead with flags, just to cover them,” says Sherlock.

One tradition that doesn't go back so far is that of the Arlington Ladies. Each of the armed forces has a group of volunteers which sends a representative to the funerals of its own. This tradition started with the Air Force in 1948.

“They really appreciate that we are there to represent the Chief of Staff and his wife and the entire Air Force family,” says Linda Willey, head of the Air Force Arlington Ladies.

Each of the services has some of its own customs, but all of the services end with the same traditions. Also going back to the Civil War, there's a rifle volley which was used to call for a pause in the fighting.

“They would fire one volley and you're clearing your guns to show that you don't intend harm,” Sherlock explains. “The other side would fire back to show the same thing. Burial parties and first aid details would be sent forward to remove the wounded and to gather the dead, remove them from the battlefield. And the third volley would be fired to show that we're ready to fight again. And of course, finally, the sounding of Taps. It was the last bugle call of the day. It was played to send the soldiers to bed and to rest. And of course, now we send them to eternal rest with Taps.”

On this Memorial Day, 265,000 who served the United States are buried at Arlington.

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