How Arlington became a final resting place for veterans

Each year on the last Monday of May, Americans honor the men and women who have lost their lives in military service to the United States. Most Americans have the day off from work. Many attend parades, visit war memorials or say a prayer at a relative’s grave.

One of the most significant sites for such commemoration is Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for U.S. military personnel of every major American conflict since the Revolutionary War. The cemetery sits across the Potomac River from Washington in Northern Virginia. In 2021, President Biden visited there on Memorial Day and said, “May the light perpetually shine upon the fallen. May God bring comfort to their families. And may God protect our troops, today and always.”

More than 400,000 service members who died while on active duty, veterans and their eligible next-of-kin are interred at the cemetery, which is nearly 260 hectares at present and plans an expansion for 80,000 additional burial plots.

Two U.S. presidents were buried there. William Howard Taft’s gravesite in Section 30 sits back away from Schley Drive, one of the main drives, under trees. John F. Kennedy is buried in Section 45 at the base of the hill on which sits Arlington House, a mansion built in the early 1800s. (All presidents are eligible for burial at the cemetery, but other presidents have been laid to rest in the places they called home or at their presidential library sites.)

Boy Scouts holding flags over a grave (© MPI/Getty Images)
Boy Scouts hold American flags over the grave of former President William Howard Taft in 1930. (© MPI/Getty Images)

Early history

Before it was a cemetery, the land was an estate that had belonged to Mary Custis Lee, who was married to Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The Lees lived for a time in the plantation’s Arlington House, which had been built decades earlier by enslaved people at the behest of a descendant of Martha Washington, wife of the first U.S. president.

Left: People in uniform standing and sitting on steps of mansion (© Alexander Gardner/Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images) Right: Building with columns (© Cliff Owen/AP Images)
Left: Union soldiers relax on the steps of Arlington House in 1864. (© Alexander Gardner/Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images) Right: The Greek Revival-style Arlington House mansion overlooks Washington. (© Cliff Owen/AP Images)

The Lees abandoned the estate at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, and during the war, the Union Army seized it to defend Washington from Confederate soldiers.

Officials turned the estate into a national cemetery in 1864, as Civil War dead were filling up cemeteries nearby, according to Tim Frank, an Arlington National Cemetery historian. Like other national cemeteries at the time, Arlington segregated the dead by race and rank. (It discontinued the practice 84 years later, when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military.)

Grave marker showing boxer coming out of stone (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)
The grave of Joe Louis Barrow, a World War II veteran and world heavyweight boxing champion (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)

In the immediate post-Civil War era, many families did not want their deceased buried in Arlington: It signaled that survivors could not afford to have their loved ones’ remains sent home for burial, Frank said.

Attitudes changed in 1868, when Civil War veterans established Decoration Day (May 30) at the Arlington cemetery to honor the fallen. President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, paid tribute at more than one Decoration Day ceremony.

“We really credit Decoration Day with making Arlington our premier national cemetery,” Frank said. “Thousands of people came to Arlington to decorate the graves with flowers. And then we started seeing more and more generals and admirals, Medal of Honor recipients and dignitaries actually requesting burial at Arlington.”

Aerial view of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)
Thirty funerals are conducted at Arlington National Cemetery daily. (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)

After World War I, Americans began honoring the dead from all of America’s wars on Decoration Day. And in 1971, Congress established Memorial Day (the last Monday of May) as a federal holiday to honor those who died while serving in the military. In recent years, Arlington National Cemetery has hosted a solemn Memorial Day ceremony at which the president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Person in uniform saluting Tomb of the Unknown Soldier next to person in wheelchair (© Alex Brandon/AP Images)
U.S. Army Sergeant Brian Pomerville stands next to his wife, Tiffany Lee, and salutes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (© Alex Brandon/AP Images)

The tomb holds an unknown American service member who was killed in World War I. Inspired by similar memorials in France and Great Britain, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the cemetery’s most visited gravesite, drawing millions of people annually.