The History of Memorial Day Is Felt In Arlington National Cemetery

The history of Memorial Day has its origin in Arlington National Cemetery. An excerpt from the Arlington website:

“Initially, being buried at a national cemetery was not considered an honor, but it ensured that service members whose families could not afford to bring them home for a funeral were given a proper burial. The first official “Decoration Day,” later renamed Memorial Day, was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. This tradition continues today, and is one reason why Arlington transformed from being one of many national cemeteries into the premier national military cemetery.”

Arlington National Cemetery and Washington Monument
Arlington National Cemetery and Washington Monument

As we celebrate the long Memorial Day holiday and officially kick off the summer season, we don’t typically take time to consider the history of Memorial Day. But so many families in the United States have personal connections to our country’s military, connections to those who have served and died, links to someone buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The History of Memorial Day

400,000 are buried in Arlington National Cemetery
400,000 are buried in Arlington National Cemetery

Over 400,000 servicemen and women are buried in Arlington. Many lost their lives fighting wars, from the Revolutionary War to current day conflicts. Headstones indicate short lives. Others served and lived long, productive lives, with their final resting place amongst the rows there. The names of many spouses are on the same gravesite.

Arlington National Cemetery is home to Memorial Day

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I included a visit to Arlington for an afternoon. I knew Sgt. Major Rodriguez’s grave was somewhere in the 624 acres in Arlington National Cemetery, although I didn’t start out to find it.

Exiting the Metrorail blue line from downtown Washington, D.C., I was among the thousands of visitors who come each day.  I stopped briefly at the welcome station, picking up a map of the most famous cemetery in the country.

Gravestones are lined in perfect symmetry

The headstones are laid out in perfect symmetry,  as precise as the regiments of those buried beneath once marched in. They fan out in one direction in a V-shape; in another, straight lines. They string up hills, into valleys, between mature trees and flowering bushes in perfectly manicured lawns — as far as the eye can see.  

Arlington National Cemetery Encompasses 624 Acres

Walking through the cemetery, my initial feeling of sadness, having seen all the graves, gave way to one of serenity. Then overpoweringly, a sense of DIGNITY in this place.  What started as a “quick tour”  of  Arlington for a few hours became something less urgent to complete.

Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial
Arlington National Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial

Referring to the map in my hand, I knew the street names, familiar from history lessons. But the size of a square block didn’t seem to apply here; the blocks seemed to go on for a mile.  I wandered farther into the park.

Standing on a corner trying to decide which way to go, I heard sounds for the first time, the sound of boots and carriage wheels on pavement. From the left, a contingent of Navy Honor Guard marching toward me. I stood alone, transfixed under the street signs Grant and Pershing.

Arlington Hosts up to 30 Funeral Per Day

The flag bearers, a sixteen member band in dress whites, carried their instruments. A rifle corps in the enlisted man’s sailor caps and spats marched past.

Honor Guard in a Navy Funeral Procession
Honor Guard in a Navy Funeral Procession

 A short distance behind came the funeral procession with three service members on horseback and three riderless horses, pulling the WWI period caisson and flag-covered coffin.

A Caisson from WWI Era and flag-draped coffin
A Caisson from WWI Era and flag-draped coffin

Enlisted men in their uniforms followed immediately behind the carriage. The family walked along behind.

Enlisted service men with rifles are part of the Honor Guard
Enlisted service men with rifles are part of the Honor Guard

The only sound besides the boots and hooves was the beating of my own heart. Would it pound out of my chest?

Funeral Procession in Arlington National Cemetery
Funeral Procession in Arlington National Cemetery

Riveted by the beautiful scene that had unfolded, my feet finally started moving back towards the Welcome Center. I felt a strong impulse to find the gravesite of Mr. Rodriguez.

We lived across the street from the Rodriguez family in the early 1960s, during the Kennedy era, and leading up to the Vietnam conflict.  As Marines, Dad and Sgt. Major Rodriguez had served in the Korean and WWII conflicts. In our childhood innocence, we knew nothing of Vietnam and what was to come. Both of them would soon be deployed and survive.

Tours By Shuttle Bus or Drop-Offs by Sections are Available

Finding his section was simple for the desk attendant, needing to know his full name and branch of service. Therefore, outside the Welcome Center, in no hurry, I waited for the shuttle in the shade.

The shuttle driver made several stops, each time pointing to the locations of each passenger’s ultimate destination, dropping us as close as possible.

A shuttle bus drops visitors off close to their destination
A shuttle bus drops visitors off close to their destination

I walked along with a lady who parked her car close to my drop-off point. She explained that families are allowed a parking pass and regular visitation if they live close by and can take advantage of it. So she was going to visit her husband’s grave.

An Army Funeral Procession

I slowed my pace, pausing to read names, eras of service, because a crowd was gathering close to my destination. Stopping under the shade of a tree, the progress of a second funeral materialized. This one was Army, with the band taking positions among the headstones to my left — an Honor Guard rifle squad to my right.

Army band takes position for a funeral
Army band takes position for a funeral
Army band prepares for the funeral ceremony
Army band prepares for the funeral ceremony

Precision and dignity of the Honor Guard

This time I witnessed the entire ceremony as it unfolded before me. Not hearing the Chaplains words, but in plain view, I saw the presentation of the American flag to the seated woman. The band played soft, patriotic music. The gun salute was close, deafening. In contrast, Taps played by the lone trumpeter standing amid the rows rang out in the distance.

A Trumpeter plays Taps
A Trumpeter plays Taps

I stayed in place until the Honor Guard rifle bearers exited the area, and the band marched silently among the tombstones.

A Rifle guard exits after the funeral
A Rifle guard exits after the funeral

Military Families are Close

When I found Mr. Rodriguez’s stone, I told him how honored I was to be there and how privileged I felt to have witnessed what I had that day. I told him that I cherished the memories of the time living across the street. Those were some of the best of my childhood. The Rodriguez girls and my family were as close as siblings. Mr. Rodriguez had nicknames for all of us, always teasing us in his loving way. I could see his broad smile as he stepped from his 1963 Mustang, dressed in his Marine Corps tans.

The headstone of Sgt. Major John A. Rodriguez, USMC, Retired
The headstone of Sgt. Major John A. Rodriguez, USMC, Retired

Families visit the final resting place of loved ones; comrades visit those who fought alongside them. Tourists witness a transformation within themselves.

Memorial Day Is a Time Of Gratitude 

Memorial Day is a time of reflection and gratitude to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The history of Memorial Day began with the Civil War. The first ceremony, held in Arlington National Cemetery, commemorated the deaths of approximately 20,000 on both sides. Therefore, the tradition continues today. Let us hold it dear.

You might also like an earlier article about visiting Washington, D.C. with an Honor Flight group. https://gransonthego.com/washington-d-c-a-day-to-honor-veterans/

Comments

  1. Judy Rodriguez Hagan

    Marla, with tears in my eyes, I thank you for your beautiful tribute to Dad and his fallen comrades. So fitting on Memorial Day 2020. You bring back wonderful memories of being our neighbors on Page Drive. Our fathers were so special. They certainly raised us to appreciate the USA and all it stands for. Semper Fi.

  2. Jane Rodriguez

    What a beautiful and heartfelt story. So well written. So grateful 🙏 for finding Mom and Dad. Hope to visit Arlington in August for Moms 100th Birthday. Love to you and yours. Thanks for sharing this amazing story ❤! Brought a proud and emotional feeling on this special day.

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