I recently had the honor of attending the funeral of a beloved family friend at Arlington National Cemetery. My dear Uncle Butchie, as he was known to us kids, was a well decorated Vietnam Veteran who became entitled to wear the Purple Heart. He was an incredibly sweet man and a true patriot to our country. His funeral, as funerals are, was somber and tearful but, at Arlington there’s a bit more. A bit more pomp and circumstance, a bit more awe, a bit more reverence for a sacrifice that you may or may not have been witness to. On a windy November afternoon about a dozen of us followed a small black sedan up a hill past gravestone after gravestone embossed with name after heroic name of so many who have left us too soon.
The sedan stopped at the crest of the hill where, standing in full dress and at attention was a regiment, a band, and a Cason ready to be drawn by 4 stunning black horses. In the distance, the capitol dome, Washington’s monument and the Lincoln Memorial offered a patriotic backdrop to a beautiful goodbye. As the procession took form and mourners followed behind, it became so clear to me that this moment, honoring this person, was his last gift to us. A way for us to remind ourselves that events of the past shape each and every moment we experience. After an 18 gun salute and a solemn Taps, my Uncle Butch was resting in peace. My time there got me thinking about what makes Arlington a place to visit.
While, for me, Arlington holds loved ones near and dear (this was my fourth trip there for a funeral) this amazing cemetery is well worth the time to learn so very much about our nation. There are some amazing and famous stops to make: Arlington House starts the story and answers the question “why here?” The, just outside, the famous Kennedy’s rest in honor of their service and circumstances surrounding so many untimely deaths. However, the highlight, in my opinion, is the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier- be sure to follow the rules and pay your respects. These are all must-do’s but I think that the big three just scratch the surface. Arlington is so much more.
One time to visit Arlington is at Christmas. Consider lending a hand to the amazing cause Wreathes Across America which adorns an evergreen wreath on each and every grave by hand. They are always looking for volunteers to help out. I can only imagine how children would react to participating in such an honorable service project. What a wonderful way to start a dialogue of giving in the ultimate season of sharing. It’s truly a great lesson in global literacy.
Another option is to check in to your own family history and see if your family has a hero buried here. Find where they are and visit. Traditionally, a small pebble is placed on the top of the grave marker to commemorate your visit. (If you see a stone, please don’t move it.) If you don’t have a family member, check out the online catalog and choose someone who may have a connection to you (a name, an era, a common history, someone from your hometown) and visit. In short, find the story, find the narrative, find the connection….. you won’t ever regret getting to know a hero. That is the spirit of Arlington.
One last traveler note
I highly suggest skipping the tram if you are able to walk, I am well versed in military history and the tour was rather dry and boring. Instead, ask questions along the way or purchase an Arlington guide like the one by James Gindlesperger.