Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most visited tourist sites in the Washington, D.C. area, with around four million visitors every year. The evidence is all too clear as you stand at the information desk inside the bright, airy building at the entrance to the cemetery. A thousand people seem to be milling around you, buying tickets for guided tours, asking for information, perusing maps, getting oriented before heading out the doors and on to the grounds.
Barely a couple of hundred feet outside the entrance to the visitors’ information office lies another world.
Perhaps it is this gentle reminder that sets the tone.
But at just a few more steps from that signpost the reason – hundreds of thousands of reasons, in fact – for the serenity and the awed hush that envelopes you becomes painfully obvious. Gravestones. On either side of you and ahead of you as far as the eye can see.
The neat rows appear to be in straight lines no matter the angle from which you view them, forming mesmerizing patterns.
If people talk at all, it’s in quiet tones and in whispers. On the pedestrian only pathways, if a car drives by, pedestrians move away in respect, because only those who have loved ones buried at this cemetery are allowed to drive in.
Designated in 1864 as a military cemetery, the Arlington National Cemetery was initially used to bury the Civil War dead. Now more than 300,000 people, including soldiers who died in the wars since the Civil War, combat veterans, Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, are buried at the cemetery. The cemetery’s website says that an average of 27 funerals take place every day. The funerals these days are for those soldiers who die on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and for World War II veterans.
The cemetery is divided into various numbered sections, each section designated for a particular conflict. In Section 27, for example, are buried former slaves who fought during the Civil War. Their tombstones designate their rank as “civilian” or “citizen”. Section 60, pictured above, has been called the “saddest acre in America,” and is the designated space for soldiers who die in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1868, the military issued an order and set aside the last Monday in the month of May as a day of remembrance and as a day to honor those who serve in the military, now observed as Memorial Day. From the Memorial Day Order:
We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.[…]
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
All kinds of people, in all shades of the human rainbow, of myriad nationalities, of all ages and abilities, in all stations in life – rich, poor, middle class. If a walk through the cemetery is a walk through American and world history, it is also a lesson in anthropology.
Families pay homage to a loved one. There were three generations in that small group you see in the center.
The man came to pay a visit to his wife’s gravestone, but searched in vain for that of a friend
Starting in 1987 and continuing through May of 2008 Rolling Thunder has been conducting the “Rolling Thunder Run” in which all of its members attend. For 21 years the members of Rolling Thunder have converged on Washington, D.C to show their continued support for the efforts to find lost service men and women of past conflicts. In May of 2001 the estimated number of motorcycles involved in this rally was 200,000; by May 2008 that number had risen to more than 350,000.
It is humbling and thrilling to be anywhere close to where a large group of the vets on bikes have gathered. You only have an inkling of what they might have gone through in combat, but you can’t help admiring their determination and perseverance in showing up every year and in large numbers for their fallen and missing comrades.
Two members of the Rolling Thunder arrive at Arlington Cemetery to pay homage
I took this picture last year as the bikers made their way to Constitution Avenue from the Lincoln Memorial
P.S. HBO Documentary Films made a movie about Section 60. I couldn’t bring myself to see it when it was first shown. For those who are interested, there’s information about the movie online on HBO’s website.
I entered the church at my own risk. I had been warned by the sound engineer, my friend Maurizio. He had gone in minutes prior and exited sniffling. He’s usually a big smile person, so a sad face on him stood out like a sore thumb. I wanted to go in nonetheless, to say a little prayer for those 560 people that died on a morning not unlike that one.The entire east-facing wall of the tiny chapel was covered floor to ceiling with small plaques, faded photos, scribbled inscriptions and epitaphs. The age of the oldest victim honored on that wall was 16. The youngest was a 2-week old infant. That wall was the children’s memorial section, and the images of those 110 innocent faces staring back at me was gripping my throat like a tight Nazi fist. The majority of the victims of the massacre that took place in Sant’Anna di Stazzema were children and young women. The men were either fighting, dead or hiding in the mountains surrounding the town. The few invalid elders in Sant’Anna died by the same two MG34 machine-guns that swept the church ground that day.