A Quick Tour of Arlington National Cemetery

by Gray Cargill on April 8, 2015

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I love walking through cemeteries. You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at how they treat their dead, and you can learn a lot by reading old headstones. Cemeteries are peaceful places to go for a meditative walk and consider the meaning of life. I personally am opting for cremation when I die, but I can see why so many like the idea of having a physical place they can visit to pay their respect to loved ones.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

When I was planning my trip to Washington, DC last fall, naturally, our Arlington National Cemetery was on my list. This, of course, is the resting place for more than 400,000 active duty servicemen and women, veterans and their families, located in Arlington, VA, which is right across the Potomac River from Washington. (In fact, many visitors stay in Arlington to save money on hotels, since it’s such an easy trip into DC via metro.)

My original plan had been to go to Arlington first thing in the morning, but I decided to sleep in and go to the Air & Space Museum first. It was mid-afternoon by the time I hopped on the blue line metro to Arlington. It was a pleasant ride.

Women in Military Memorial

Memorial for women who have served in the US military

I was so lucky–the day was sunny and warm, and the skies were clear. Perfect for visiting Arlington Cemetery. I didn’t even need my jacket. The cemetery metro station is located at the cemetery, so you literally walk up out of the station and you’re there. Straight ahead on Memorial Avenue is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Before that, to the left, is the entrance of the Welcome Center.

When I arrived, I knew I only had a couple of hours before the cemetery closed. I picked up a map so I could find the sites I wanted to see and immediately felt a sinking feeling. There were winding trails all over the place. I am not known for my great sense of direction. I immediately thought “I am totally going to get lost and have to spend the night in the cemetery.” In fact, I actually joked with one of the staff members about this, and he reassured me that wouldn’t happen. (He was right. Whew.)

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is also an arboretum with a large variety of trees planted across the property

The cemetery is vast, though, at 624 acres. I hadn’t realized just how big it was–or how beautiful. Whenever I saw photos of Arlington Cemetery on TV or in magazines or online, I always saw what looked like typical cemetery fields–just with a lot more headstones. But Arlington’s landscape is very diverse. There are fields and hills and valleys and lots of trees. In fact, it isn’t just a cemetery–it’s also an arboretum. The trees are definitely a welcome aspect to the cemetery. Because I was there in October, some of the trees had turned color, so that added a splash of vibrancy to the landscape.

There are signs directing visitors to some of the more prominent locations, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Kennedy grave sites. The cemetery is plotted out and divided into numbered sections, so once you can match up a number you see near you with the map, it’s a bit easier to find your way around. And then, when it came time to head toward the exit, there was clear signage for that. (I’ve had more trouble finding the exit in Las Vegas casinos than this cemetery, so thank you, Arlington.)

Kennedy Grave Site

Grave site of John and Jackie Kennedy.

My first stop was to see the graves of former US President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy. There is a burning flame here at all times.

Eternal Flame

This “Eternal Flame” is kept burning at all times.

John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote is featured here at his grave site. “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Kennedy Quote

John F. Kennedy’s famous quote featured at his grave site.

Senators Robert (who, like President Kennedy, was also assassinated while in office) and Edward “Ted” Kennedy are also buried here, close to their brother John.

RFK grave stone

Robert F. Kennedy’s grave stone

I was curious about the coins I saw at Robert Kennedy’s grave, so when I got home, I Googled it. It turns out it’s an old military tradition to leave coins at the headstone of a soldier who died while in service to his country. (Read more about this.)

On a hill high above the Kennedy’s is Arlington House, a mansion that was owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife. I forgot Lee was from Virginia until this trip to DC. It was mentioned in more than one place I visited (such as Arlington Cemetery and Ford’s Theater). I didn’t have time for more than a distant view of the house, though.

Arlington House

Arlington House

Next, I made my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I had hoped to catch the changing of the guard, but I missed it by just a bit. I did see the guard stationed there, pacing back and forth very professionally.

Guard at Tomb

Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Also located on the same site is the Memorial Amphitheater. Official services to honor members of the military are held here on national holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The amphitheater is an impressive piece of architecture made with Vermont marble. (It’s amazing how many Vermont connections I found during this trip to DC. It made me proud to think we’ve had such an impact on so many important national historic sites.)

Arlington Amphitheater

The amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery

Outside the amphitheater is a bench memorial of the Korean War.

Korean War memorial bench

Korean War memorial bench

A short walk away are memorials to the crews of the Space Shuttles Challenger (which broke apart a little over a minute into its mission in 1986) and Columbia (which disintegrated upon re-entering the atmosphere in 2003).

Challenger shuttle memorial

Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial

The Challenger disaster in particular was a pivotal event in my life. I was a teacher’s aide at the time in a 1st through 8th grade school. The excitement about that mission was that Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire was aboard. There was some professional pride that a teacher–from New England, no less–was going into space. The entire school gathered in the library to watch the launch on TV, only to have it turn to disaster. What a terrible day that was.

(Columbia was no less a tragedy, of course, but I have no recollection of where I was when it happened. Working, probably.)

Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial

Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial

Set between these two memorials is a third dedicated to the members of the armed services who died while trying to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980. (The Iran Hostage Crisis is yet another of those historic events I can’t believe happened during my lifetime.)

According to their website, the cemetery holds 27-30 funerals every weekday and a few on Saturdays. I heard the unmistakable sound of a gun salute across the property at one point, so there must have been a funeral in process. On my way down the hill toward the exit, I passed a couple of soldiers on black horses drawing a black cart behind them. They made a somber sight.

I wanted to make sure I left before the cemetery closed, so I wasn’t able to spend as much time here as I would’ve liked. But in all honesty, this was one of my favorite stops during my trip to Washington, DC. There is so much important history here. Those who die in service to their country deserve to be remembered, and the U.S. Army is doing a great job with that here at Arlington.

Amphitheater arch

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” – President Abraham Lincoln

If you have time during your visit to DC, I highly recommend making the trip out here. It’s worth it. You don’t need to take a tour to do it. It’s so easy to get to.

Be sure to visit their website ahead of time. It provides detailed directions on how to get there, maps, and lists of what there is to see. They also have an app you can download to your smartphone. I had a little difficulty with the Android version of the app, but it still helped a bit, and is free.

Headstone with flowers


Keith B April 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

I was there two weeks ago. Did the same as you by going in the afternoon by the metro. Once inside I took the trolley bus tour and enjoyed the commentary explaining the various sections. I was there for the changing of the guard. It was interesting. I enjoyed the history of the cemetery before it was the cemetery as well. There were 25 burials the day I visited.

Gray Cargill April 9, 2015 at 8:30 pm

Did you really, Keith? Funny. Glad to hear about the trolley tour. I chose to do it at my own pace, but I think if I went back for a longer period of time, I might want the tour. I usually learn a lot more that way.

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