Arlington Cemetery: History and Veterans Burial Eligibility

Updated on February 9, 2018
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Thelma Raker Coffone is an award-winning writer who enjoys writing on a variety of topics, especially lighthouses.


Located just outside Washington, D.C. in Virginia, are 624 acres of the most hallowed ground in the world, Arlington National Cemetery. This shrine to honor the dead of the Armed Forces of the United States, is the final resting place for over 300,000 military men and women as well as presidents and other prominent people that served our country.

History of Arlington Cemetery

Prior to becoming a military cemetery, Arlington was a beautiful southern estate owned by Martha Washington's great grand-daughter, Mary Anna Custis Lee who was married to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

During the Civil War, Arlington House was occupied by Union troops who forced Mrs. Lee out of her home. After General Lee's defeat and surrender, the United States government confiscated part of his Arlington estate due to unpaid taxes amounting to $92.07. Mrs. Lee had attempted to pay the tax by sending someone to Washington to make the payment, but the Federal Government refused to accept the tax money from anyone other than the actual property owner. The government took the property and used it as a graveyard for soldiers who fought for the Union.

In 1874, Custis Lee, oldest son of Robert E. Lee, sued the United States in the Supreme Court case United States v. Lee in an attempt to regain ownership of Arlington. The Court ruled the US government had taken Arlington from the Lee family without due process and returned the estate to Lee.

Custis Lee then negotiated with Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Lincoln, for the sale of the property back to the United States. The deal was closed with Lee receiving $150,000 for the estate. Robert Todd Lincoln would later be laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery in 1921, with his tomb overlooking the Lincoln Memorial.

"Tomb of the Unknowns"

Unidentified remains of a serviceman from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were laid to rest in the "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier". However, the remains of the Vietnam War soldier were disinterred by order of President Bill Clinton at the request of the soldier's family. Through DNA testing, the soldier was identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie whose family had him reinterred near St. Louis, Missouri.

The Department of Defense recommended the Vietnam crypt remain empty. Due to the advances in DNA testing, it is hoped that one day all remains will be identified. The original inscription on the crypt was changed to, "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen".

Arlington National Cemetery Logo
Arlington National Cemetery Logo | Source

Eligibility for Burial in Arlington National Cemetery

Eligibility for burial in Arlington Cemetery must be approved at the time of death and can not be arranged beforehand. Here is a partial list of those eligible for interment (ground burial):

  • Active duty member of the US Armed Forces
  • Retired member of the US Armed Forces who is receiving retirement pay
  • Recipient of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star or Purple Heart
  • Any former prisoner of war
  • The spouse, widow or widower, or minor child of persons listed above

Inurnment of cremated remains is available to all of the above as well as any former member of the US Armed Forces that was discharged honorably, regardless of rank.

Arlington National Cemetery does not charge for an interment or inurnment at the cemetery. There is no charge for a grave site, for the excavation required to open the grave, or for the setup and closing of the grave site. A government headstone and grave liner are also provided at no charge.

Bugler on a Snowy Day at Arlington
Bugler on a Snowy Day at Arlington | Source

The Arlington Ladies

Most people are not aware of a group of women whose mission is to "ensure no soldier is buried alone." The "Arlington Ladies" were formed in 1948 when the wife of an Air Force Chief of Staff witnessed a funeral for a serviceman with no family members present. The sight of just the chaplain and the honor guard with no one else to pay their last respects prompted her to form a group of military wives to attend every funeral in Arlington.

Dressed in simple dark suits and holding the arm of a uniformed military escort, the Arlington Ladies offer their condolences and their assistance to the grieving families. Many follow up with a note to the next of kin a few weeks after the service. Such a simple gesture, but it can mean so much.

The group consists of approximately 145 members who volunteer their service one day a month and attend four or five funerals a day.

Interview with an Arlington Lady

Wreaths Across America program at Arlington Cemetery 2012
Wreaths Across America program at Arlington Cemetery 2012 | Source

Wreaths Across America at Arlington Cemetery

Wreaths across America is a non-profit organization whose mission is to place wreaths during the holiday season at cemeteries and memorials in all of the 50 states. Volunteers lay the wreaths at the veterans' graves, hoping to have enough monetary donations to cover all of the graves. The touching photograph shown here is from the wreath laying at Arlington Cemetery, a few days prior to Christmas, 2012.

President Kennedy Gravesite and Eternal Flame with Robert E. Lee Mansion in Background
President Kennedy Gravesite and Eternal Flame with Robert E. Lee Mansion in Background | Source
Photo by Author, Thelma Raker Coffone
Photo by Author, Thelma Raker Coffone

Visiting Arlington Cemetery

It is estimated that over four million people visit Arlington Cemetery each year. There are approximately 30 burials each day. The most visited graves are those of President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and his two brothers Robert and Edward. Other frequently visited grave sites are those of World War II hero Audie Murphy, General John Pershing who was the commander of the US forces in France during World War I and Astronauts Richard Scobee and Michael Smith who died aboard the Shuttle Challenger.

Arlington Cemetery, which is administered by the Department of the Army, is divided into 70 sections. Section 60 is the burial place for servicemen killed in the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. Section 21, known as the Nurses Section, is where many nurses are buried and the Nurses Memorial is located there. Numerous other memorials are located throughout the cemetery.

Located at the entrance to the cemetery, the Visitors Center provides maps and guidebooks which will help to make your visit more interesting. Clerks are on hand to look up locations of specific graves that you wish to visit.

Private cars are not allowed in the cemetery unless you receive a special pass which is given to handicapped persons or to individuals wanting to visit the grave of a family member or friend.

Arlington is open 365 days a year with hours from 8am until 7pm (April through September) and until 5pm (October through March).

When visiting Arlington, please remember that respectful behavior is expected at all times. Signs such as the one shown below are posted as a reminder.

For additional information on Arlington National Cemetery, visit the website at

Arlington Cemetery Mission Statement

On behalf of the American people, lay to rest those who have served our nation with dignity and honor, treating their families with respect and compassion, and connecting guests to the rich tapestry of the cemetery's living history, while maintaining these hallowed grounds befitting the sacrifice of all those who rest here in quiet repose.

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© 2011 Thelma Raker Coffone

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