on August 28, 2009
This is America's national cemetery for military personnel and I think it is another one of those places which is a must see for anyone visiting DC. GETTING THERE: There is plenty of public transportation which goes there, including the metro (get off at Arlington National Cemetery). There is also a car park, which costs $1.75 for the first 3 hours and $2 per hour after that. We left our car in the car park and then picked up a tour for the rest of DC from the cemetery which is a good idea because parking can be very tricky in DC. PRICES AND OPENING: The cemetery is completely free. However, if you can't face walking around the cemetery and need to take transport you can go around with Tourmobile. This company is the only one which can drive its tours around the cemetery itself and seemed to be one of the best tour companies in Washington. The tour was $27 each for the Arlington and DC parts combined. I would highly recommend this as it gives you lots of information, gets you close to the attractions and you can get on and off as many times as you want in the day. The cemetery opens at 8am every morning (including Christmas). In the summer months (Apr.-Sept.) it closes at 7pm and in the winter months (Oct.-Mar.) it closes at 5pm. SOME HISTORY: Arlington Cemetery was originally the part of the grounds of Arlington House. The land was taken from the Lee family (Robert E. Lee was a general during the American Civil War) for the burial of Civil War soldiers. The first burial was in 1864. Since then there have been over 300 000 people buried there. THE EXPERIENCE: The entrance building has toilets, an information desk, ticket counter for the Tourmobile company, a shop and a small display about the cemetery. We bought our tickets for the Tourmobile bus and then made our way out to the bus stop which is just outside. The buses are very regular so you won't have to wait more than about 10 minutes. Each bus has a driver and a tour guide. The guides seemed to be retired people. You firstly make your way to the Kennedy gravesite. As you go around the guide talks to you. The guides were mostly really good. They were friendly and gave loads of interesting information that you don't get from walking around yourself. Once the bus stopped we made our way up a short hill to the Kennedy gravesite. This is where JFK is buried. He is one of only two presidents buried in the cemetery (the other is William H. Taft). Also buried at the site are Jackie Kennedy, their son Patrick and a stillborn daughter. The assassination of JFK is one of the most famous events of the 20th century. Whenever I speak to people who were alive at the time they always remember where they were when they heard about it. The graves themselves are very simple. There are two large, flat, black slabs set into the ground, one for JFK and one for Jackie and two smaller stones for the children. Behind the stones there is an eternal flame. The site is usually very busy meaning you will probably wait a few minutes to get close. Standing at this site is quite moving when you think of how Kennedy died. There is a spectacular view of Washington itself from the grave site. Just below the graves on a platform overlooking the city Kennedy's inauguration address has been carved into the stone. This includes the famous line 'And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country'. Just around the corner from the JFK grave is the grave of his brother Bobby. I think a lot of people could miss this one. It is a very simple white cross on the edge of a path. Behind this as you look at it is a small pool of water with quotes from Bobby Kennedy's civil rights efforts. We spent about 20 minutes at the Kennedy gravesite before getting on to another bus to take us to the next stop. The buses only stop at each stop for about 8 minutes so you won't really have time to get back on the same bus. As you drive through the cemetery you get an idea of just how vast it is. Arlington still has around 28 funerals and internments a day which means that you are quite likely to see one. There are not very many non-military personnel buried at Arlington. One which we drove past was the grave of the pilot of the plane which flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. Our second stop was the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Amphitheatre. It was built in 1920. This has the names of various battalions inscribed into it along with quotes from Washington ('When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen') and Lincoln ('We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain'). It also has the quote 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' (it is sweet and fitting to die for your country) which is famous as the 'old lie' in Wilfred Owen's poem written during the First World War. Despite the fact that I think this quote shouldn't be on any memorial (I agree with Owen), I liked the rest of the Amphitheatre. The Tombs of the Unknowns are behind the Amphitheatre. Here there are four tombs. The main tomb which you can see is the white sarcophagus. Underneath this is the tomb of the First World War soldier. There are three other tombs which are represented by white slab grave stones. These contained soldiers from World War Two, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I say contained because the Vietnam tomb now lies empty as they identified the body and it was reburied by his family. There is a soldier on guard here all the time. This part of the visit was very moving, the silence in this part of the cemetery is very obvious from everyone being engrossed in the surroundings and the tombs. Opposite the Amphitheatre there are two other memorials which are worth looking at. The first is the memorial to the Maine disaster. This is made up from the mast of the USS Maine which sunk in 1898. The ship was destroyed by the Spanish off the coast of Cuba and took 260 lives. The memorial is interesting because it is quite different to other memorials, its not white marble and pristine looking - it looks a little worn but just as moving. The other memorial is the memorial to the astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster. This is a bronze plaque which shows the space shuttle and images of the seven astronauts who died when the Challenger exploded. I like this memorial as it is very simple but the faces of the astronauts makes it very effective and more poignant. Their remains are buried below the memorial. Alongside this is a memorial dedicated to the astronauts in the Columbia Disaster. There are many other memorials throughout the cemetery but since we only had a short time we did not see these. The final stop on the tour is Arlington House. We did not go inside this due to time constraints. I have been in before but it was a good few years ago. From what I can remember it is well worth a visit. This is the house of Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis and is set out as it was in the time of the Civil War. The house is at the top of the hill so it has great views over the city as well. At the end of our visit we went to the shop. This was small and had the usual tourist fare of Washington postcards, posters and books. The prices were reasonable and I bought a book which I saw somewhere else later in the day at a more expensive price. CONCLUSION: So that should be a fair idea of what's to be seen in Arlington. There is a lot there and if you walk around and look at lots of the graves you can spend quite a long time here. It is definitely somewhere that I think is essential to visit if you're in Washington. I found the various memorials very moving and just the sheer volume of graves gets to you. If you have the time, spend it looking more closely at the graves, some of the inscriptions are really interesting. Even for those not hugely interested in American history I think this place is a must see. I think it's especially interesting for the generations that remember the Second World War, Korean and Vietnam Wars and the death of JFK.
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