Reflections on Arlington Cemetery – Sen. Kennedy’s final resting place

Presidents, generals, and Supreme Court justices are there. But mostly, it's ordinary servicemen and women who served their country without public acclaim.

Jim Young/Reuters
Funeral planners look over the site where U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

No place in the nation’s capital speaks more eloquently of the sacrifices required to build and defend the United States of America than Arlington National Cemetery.

When Senator Edward Kennedy is buried there Saturday on a hill overlooking Washington, his remains will be interred near those of his brothers John and Robert. He will also join 260,000 others whose resting places are marked with row upon row of simple white crosses and occasional Stars of David.

Heroes from the Revolution on

Arlington became a military cemetery during the Civil War when a home and property owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee was seized and turned into a burial ground. Since 1864, veterans from the Revolutionary War through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest in its 612 acres of carefully manicured lawns. Pre-Civil war veterans were reinterred after 1900.

Nearly 4 million visitors come to see Arlington each year. Some are drawn by President Kennedy’s gravesite on the hill near the Custis-Lee Mansion. Others seek out the Tomb of the Unknowns, guarded around the clock by the 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard).

Arlington contains the graves of the famous including two US presidents (Kennedy and William Howard Taft). It is also home to four Chief Justices and eight Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. Nineteen astronauts are interred, along with five of the nation’s five star generals and admirals. The first female military pilot killed in combat rests there as does the only women correspondent killed during the Korean War.

Unselfish and anonymous

But many of the visits -- and much of Arlington’s emotional impact -- are linked to the seemingly endless expanse of crosses marking the graves of those who had neither fame nor fortune but only a willingness to die for their country.

The ranks of those resting at Arlington grows by roughly 100 a week, with funerals normally held only on weekdays. In addition to in-ground burials, Arlington also provides a columbarium for cremated remains.

The detailed rules for who can be buried at Arlington are spelled out on the cemetery website. Among those eligible for burial are active duty and retired military service members, former prisoners of war, and presidents of the United States.

Senator Kennedy is eligible for burial under a provision allowing those who served in the military, as Kennedy did, to be buried there if they also served in Congress. Stricter eligibility rules apply for in-ground burial than for inurnment in the columbarium where those who were drafted and served relatively briefly can be laid to rest.

Senator Kennedy was familiar with Arlington and its quiet majesty. In announcing Kennedy’s burial plans his office said, “Senator Kennedy spent more days than most at Arlington visiting the graves of his beloved brothers and paying tribute to the fallen men and women of Massachusetts who gave their lives for our country.”


Ted Kennedy's legislative legacy

If his career as a lawmaker had one overarching theme, it was to improve the quality of life for Americans -- especially those he considered to be underrepresented by the political power structure. Here are some of the major laws bearing the Kennedy stamp.


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