‘Where valor rests’: Arlington National Cemetery (pt. 3 of 3)
Arlington today remains a beautiful, complex, and vibrant site within our nation’s capital. The dead need perpetual care. Each day maintenance crews mow 130-acres, reset several dozen leaning headstones, and power-wash a thousand stones. Every burial at Arlington (more than 6,000 a year) is located on a five-by-eight inch index card stored in an enormous Kardex revolving file. A large blue print for each of the cemetery’s 70 sections pinpoints every plot, along with trees, old sprinkler heads, gas lines, and other landscape idiosyncrasies. The challenge is to ensure the beauty of the grounds without compromising any of the grave sites. This includes 25,000 square feet of shrubs, 15,000 square feet of flower beds, and 9,000 trees.
In the decades after the Civil War, Arlington had grown at a modest rate. That all changed with President Kennedy’s death in 1963. The President, during a visit to Arlington earlier that year, had unwittingly selected his own grave site. Surveying the serene beauty below the mansion, he reportedly murmured, ” I could stay here forever.” Jacqueline Kennedy approved the location, and a grave was opened through the hard clay and oak roots. Requests for burial in Arlington increased, a demand soon aggravated by more than 58,000 American deaths during the Vietnam War. From the late 1950s, until 2000, the number of graves would nearly triple, from 93,000 to 250,000. As cemetery officials searched for more adjacent land, new eligibility rules 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.
Lack of space is becoming an enemy. Parcels of land have been added over the years, notably 190 additional acres from Fort Meyer South Post. Arlington will be at capacity around 2060. A master plan, drafted in 1998, identified 14 parcels of land abutting the existing cemetery. Collectively, those tracts mostly owned by other federal agencies, would provide another 125 acres. So far, several of the 14 have been procured.
This concludes the end of my three-part column on Arlington National Cemetery. Again, much of the information I shared with you was taken from Rick Atkinson’s essay “Where Valor Rests.” I have asked myself while writing this series, “Why the need to place so much emphasis on Arlington?” As I think about this, I realized Arlington, in many ways, defines who we are as Americans. Established as a home in the early part of our nation’s history by two prominent and intertwined American families, it modeled the success that one could achieve by working hard to reach the American dream, in a free land. Then, this same piece of ground epitomized the division our country endured during the Civil War. It became shadowed by hate and discord. It was darkened by the need for revenge, by turning a place of vibrant and beautiful life, to a place of death. Yet, our country survived this time of trial. We, as a nation, became united again. And so did this hallowed ground. To quote from Rick Atkinson’s book: ” Like the valiant men and women laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, the individuals whose paths cross on these hallowed grounds represent the diversity from which our nation springs and draws its strength. These are the people.” Arlington endures as a living memorial to those who have sacrificed in uniform, for Arlington is truly a place where valor rests.
As we approach this upcoming Memorial Day observance, let us always remember and honor all who have served and sacrificed for this great land of ours, wherever they lie in eternal rest. Wherever this may be, may it always be for them a blessed place of solace, light, and grace.
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