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Arlington Cemetery
JUNE 2007
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Arlington Cemetery
By Rick Atkinson

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Twenty-four inches (60 centimeters) above ground, thirteen inches (33 centimeters) wide, and four inches (ten centimeters) thick, each marker accommodates only the sparest biographical details and brief terms of endearment, all within a maximum of 12 lines, 15 characters per line. Each stone can also carry a spiritual symbol, of which 38 have been authorized, from Episcopal to Muslim to atheist to Hindu.

More than 6,000 funerals a year end in Arlington. A daily spreadsheet lists them hour by hour, giving not only the location and depth of new graves but also a few hints of each life now ended: rank, next of kin, military service, whether the deceased was a decorated veteran. To prevent the corteges from colliding and to keep maintenance work at a respectful distance from graveside ceremonies, a sheaf of maps shows hourly funeral routes on the cemetery's 45 roads and walkways.

"The challenge is to ensure that we beautify the grounds without in any way compromising the grave sites," says Erik Dihle, a tall, blond Californian who is the chief of grounds and burial operations.

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.

The President's burial, a somber pageant of grace and dignity, was watched by a worldwide television audience. Within three years, 16 million visitors paid homage to the site in section 45, which was soon expanded to a three-acre (one hectare) sanctuary paved with Cape Cod granite and softened with sedum plants. The Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago installed an Eternal Flame as a beacon of remembrance. "It's as eternal as anything man-made can be," a cemetery official later observed.

Requests for burial in Arlington abruptly swelled, a demand soon aggravated by more than 58,000 American deaths during the Vietnam War, when as many as 47 funerals in one day crisscrossed the cemetery. From the late 1950s until 2000, the number of graves would nearly triple, from almost 93,000 to 250,000. As cemetery officials searched for more contiguous land to augment Arlington's acreage, new eligibility rules imposed in 1967 sharply restricted burials to a small percentage of veterans, including those who die on active duty, those honorably retired after a career in the military, those highly decorated for valor, and their spouses.

Even a short stroll through Arlington is a perambulation through the American narrative. The graves of prominent military figures abound, of course, including World War II commanders like Gen. George C. Marshall, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey, Jr. Beneath a simple government-issue stone in section 34 lies Gen. John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Steps away is the grave of his grandson, who was killed in Vietnam. Other veterans achieved fame in arenas beyond the battlefield, including boxer Joe Louis, author Dashiell Hammett, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and physician Walter Reed, whose headstone in section 3 notes that "He Gave to Men Control Over That Dreadful Scourge Yellow Fever."


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