Hallowed Ground : Arlington National Cemetery came from humble beginnings. But 130 years later, : it’s America’s most prestigious burial site.
On a sultry summer morning at Arlington National Cemetery, Erwin Henry Shupp was buried on a grassy knoll as a bugler played taps and soldiers fired a rifle volley at the sky.
At 9 a.m., just after the bell tolled in a faraway cemetery clock tower, seven white horses pulled a gun carriage carrying a flag-covered casket with Shupp’s cremated remains along a cemetery road, under the oak and magnolia trees, to his waiting grave.
His friends had called him Ed, this Army lieutenant colonel who loved to ride horses and had served as a field artillery officer in World War II, later working as a Southern California aerospace engineer.
But after eight painful years fighting cancer, Shupp finally took his place alongside so many other soldiers and statesmen here at Arlington National--the most prestigious burial grounds in the United States.
On the same July day, 23 other funerals were held at Arlington. Some, like Shupp’s, featured military honors--a somber black gun carriage, or caisson, and an honor guard. Others were simple affairs attended by a few family members.
Established during the Civil War as a burial ground for Union soldiers, the cemetery has taken in the remains of more than 232,000 Americans, including Presidents and judges, admirals, astronauts, war heroes and social pioneers.
Each year, 4.5 million tourists visit the graves of President John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; his brother Sen. Robert Kennedy, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Earl Warren, Oliver Wendell Holmes and William O. Douglas.
At Arlington, soldiers and generals are buried side by side, fighting men and women sharing a field of realized dreams, their marble markers stretching out in elegant symmetry to the horizon.
“It must make dying a little easier to know you’ll be buried at Arlington,” cemetery historian Kathy Shenkle said. “One thing is for sure, you’ll be in good company for some time to come.”
Indeed, the names of those buried in Arlington’s 612 acres read like some comprehensive American history book: Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Richard Byrd. President William Howard Taft. Boxing great Joe Louis. Audie Murphy, the most decorated World War II veteran. Statesman John Foster Dulles. World War II Gens. Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall. Scopes “Monkey Trial” prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. And Civil War veteran Abner Doubleday, credited in myth with the invention of baseball.
With them are 21 Marines killed in a 1983 terrorist bombing in Lebanon, as well as the eight men who died in the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. And countless everyday soldiers who fought in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam.
To join Arlington’s ranks is no easy task: Most of those buried here qualified because they died on the battlefield, or on active military duty, or served the country at least 20 years. Others held the nation’s highest military decorations or the Purple Heart.
“It meant a lot to him to be buried here,” said one mourner at a military service. “You just can’t put a price on it.”
A day at Arlington provides a peaceful break from the intensity of the nation’s capital just across the Potomac River. Boisterous onlookers suddenly quiet as they come upon the eternal flame at the JFK grave site and approach the Tomb of the Unknowns, guarded around the clock by a solitary sentinel.
An average of 18 funerals take place daily at Arlington, the second-largest national cemetery after Long Island National Cemetery in New York. At the height of the Vietnam war, 35 burials were held daily.
At the present rate, the cemetery will be filled by the year 2025. “Nobody,” one worker said, “wants to see that day come.”
Every morning, one half-hour before the first funeral, the flag outside Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee, is lowered to half staff, where it remains until half an hour after the day’s last ceremony.
The cemetery’s most elaborate ceremony, full honors, is reserved for the highest-ranking officers and includes a rifle salute, riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, a military band and a casket carried on a horse-drawn caisson, flanked by members of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard.”
Lt. Col. Albert Isler, a chaplain who presided over the Shupp ceremony, performed five other funerals that day.
“I’ve seen bagpipe and harp players, gospel-singing soloists, even a boombox playing rap music,” he said. “People add their own touches as a way of saying farewell.”
Worse than summer funerals in humid northern Virginia are the wintertime ceremonies where stern-faced military honor guardsmen shiver under thin coats and white gloves.
“The wind chill is 20-below, your hands are frozen, your nose is running, and you can’t do anything about it,” Isler said. “But you know the family is just as cold. They’re suffering more than you.”
Despite its present-day grandeur, Arlington National Cemetery started as a virtual potter’s field.
The 1,100-acre plantation was once owned by John Parke Custis, the adopted son of President George Washington. It was eventually willed to Mary Lee--wife of Robert E., then a young Army officer.
In 1861, with the Civil War approaching, Lee resigned his commission rather than bear arms against his native Virginia.
Soon, federal troops crossed the Potomac and turned Arlington House into an Army headquarters. Three years later, the government confiscated the property, transforming a section into a cemetery for the legions of unidentified Union soldiers who had died at the hands of Lee’s troops.
On June 15, 1864, there were 65 funerals on the estate. By war’s end, the hillsides were marked by the headstones of 16,000 soldiers.
As well, 482 Confederate soldiers and civilians are buried at Arlington, near an area called Freedman’s Village, where 3,800 freed slaves are buried, their headstones marked only “Civilian” or “Citizen.”
Over the decades, Arlington has perhaps become best known for its silent salute to four anonymous soldiers: The Tomb of the Unknowns remains the cemetery’s most symbolic site.
In a large white sarcophagus lie the remains of soldiers from World Wars I and II, and from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is really what made veterans first notice Arlington cemetery,” historian Shenkle said. “It’s what made it a prestigious place in the eyes of many.
“Some argue that the cemetery’s status comes from John Kennedy. But Arlington had already achieved its stature by then. That’s why Kennedy was buried here in the first place.”
While home to the country’s honored dead, Arlington National continues to capture the imagination of its living: Shenkle is often deluged with questions about the place and its rituals.
The post-burial rifle volleys, for example, trace to the Civil War when the opposing armies fired such volleys to signal an end to the truces that were often declared to allow both sides to collect their dead and wounded from the battlefield.
Arlington is the only national cemetery that uses horse-drawn caissons to transport remains. Flags used to drape coffins are carefully folded in a triangular shape reminiscent of the soldiers’ hats of the Revolutionary War.
Said Shenkle: “This job is like playing 20 Questions. There’s still a lot of interest out there.”
Another tradition is that of the Arlington Ladies--a sisterhood of 150 military wives and widows from the Army, Navy and Air Force--at least one of whom attends every funeral to ensure no soldier goes to the grave alone.
They’re professional mourners.
“Military funerals are ritualistic, rigid and just plain scary,” said Pat Thompson, who attended the funeral for Shupp, the former artillery officer and aerospace engineer. She handed Shupp’s closest relative at the service, his wife’s sister, a note of thanks from the U.S. Army for his services.
“We’ve stood by our husbands for the last 30 years while they served their country and can lend these widows a personal touch,” Thompson said. “As for the men, we say that no one in the U.S. Army will ever die alone. One of us will always be there.” Sometimes, an Arlington Lady is the only one there.
“The Arlington funeral is the most moving experience on Earth,” said Nancy Schado, head of the Army branch of the Arlington Ladies. “There’s just something about the forlorn look of the caisson and the sound of the horses’ hoofs. It sends goose bumps down my spine.”
Eleven years ago, Schado buried her husband at Arlington with full military honors. She remembers walking behind the riderless horse, fighting back tears.
“You don’t get used to these funerals--ever,” she said. “But it’s harder when you bury your own husband. You tell yourself nothing can hurt him anymore. You have to go forward, like he trained you to do.”
Arlington National Cemetery often inspires emotion. But none perhaps as widely felt as on the day John F. Kennedy was buried here in November, 1963.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin, then a reporter for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, was among hundreds of journalists who covered the event. On the morning of the funeral, instead of trailing the Washington press corps, Breslin struck out on his own to Arlington.
He interviewed Clifton Pollard, a quiet, 42-year-old backhoe operator who spoke about the honor of digging the slain President’s grave--even if it was his day off.
Since that day Breslin has never returned to Arlington. With typical candor, he expressed doubts about the cemetery’s mystique.
“There’s no good place to be buried,” he said. “Man is always attempting to add some glory to death and is incapable of doing so. The ground speaks for itself. It opens up. And you’re gone.”
But on that afternoon 31 years ago, Breslin wrote with stylish strength about the mourning of both a nation and a widowed Jacqueline Kennedy--with Arlington National as his stage:
This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. . . .
The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is President and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often.
Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House.
“What time is it?” a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch.
“Twenty minutes past three,” he said.
Now it is half-past 9 and the soldiers are carrying the urn with the remains of Lt. Col. Erwin Shupp toward the grave site.
A lone soldier, standing straight and tall and stone-faced, beats a snare drum, and the American flag is folded into triangles and handed to a family member.
On a nearby hill, a firing party squeezes off three successive volleys, the reports rolling again and again off the white grave markers of soldiers who rest in peace here.