email a friend iconprinter friendly iconArlington Cemetery
Page [ 4 ] of 8

In Dihle's office, next to a Norfolk Island pine and an angel-wing begonia, a quotation from philosopher William James adorns a large wall map of Arlington: "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." Regulations prohibit mourners from embellishing graves with artifacts or love tokens other than flowers. Yet in section 64 a grieving mother has placed several stuffed bears in a weeping willow near the grave of her son. "She has a whole little colony of teddy bears there," Dihle says with a shake of his head.

In section 60 the raw graves of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are appointed with little amulets for the next world: a ceramic fortune cookie; a bottle of beer; a spent 9-mm brass cartridge; a sliver of agate from the fallen soldier's native Kentucky; laminated photos of wives, sweethearts, children. On a smooth stone, a message neatly printed in indelible ink could crack the hardest heart: "I love you, Daddy. Happy birthday."

A single sheet of paper listed the 24 funerals scheduled for November 25, 1963, beginning with an Air Force Reserve colonel named Edward C. Forsythe at 9 a.m. in section 35. Yet it was the last of those two dozen ceremonies on the list, scheduled for 3 p.m. in section 45, that would forever change Arlington. With the name of the deceased's next of kin misspelled—perhaps reflecting the bewildered anxiety that afflicted cemetery officials, as it did all Americans—the entry read: "John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Cdr. in Chief. NOK: Jqcqueline Kennedy, widow."

In the decades after the Civil War, Arlington had grown at a modest rate. Among the most poignant events in the cemetery was the first Decoration Day—now called Memorial Day—on May 30, 1868. President Andrew Johnson gave all federal workers the day off for what was described as "the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades." Wearing black satin sashes and singing "Father Come Home," children from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Asylum tossed blossoms on graves near the Custis-Lee mansion; Gen. James A. Garfield, who, as President 13 years later, would be sent to his own grave by an assassin's bullet, lauded those for whom "death was a poem the music of which can never be sung."

Kennedy's death transformed the national cemetery into a national icon. The President, during a visit to Arlington earlier that year, had unwittingly selected his own grave site. Surveying the serene vista below the original plantation house—the Custis-Lee mansion—he reportedly murmured, "I could stay here forever." Mrs. Kennedy approved the location the day after his assassination, and a grave was opened through the hard clay and oak roots. Since the solid mahogany casket weighed 1,200 pounds (545 kilograms), military pallbearers in the small hours of November 25 practiced carrying a duplicate casket filled with sandbags and further deadweighted with two soldiers sitting on top.

Page [ 4 ] of 8