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Arlington National Cemetery FAQs

Updated: December 25, 2023

There are many questions that guests on our Arlington National Cemetery walking tour ask. Below are some of the most commonly asked.

Arlington National Cemetery FAQs:

  • What is Arlington National Cemetery?

Arlington National Cemetery was not the first national cemetery in the United States created for our fallen soldiers, nor is it the largest. It is, however, one of the more well-known with over 400,000 honored men and women who fought in the Revolutionary War and beyond. Arlington National Cemetery is the only cemetery with a serviceman from every war the United States has fought in buried on its grounds.

Before it was a cemetery, it was Arlington House, the home of the Custis and later the Lee families. As soon as Virginia seceded from the Union, the US government took control of the grounds on Arlington Heights to protect the capital city from enemy artillery. At the beginning of the war, it was a military camp for Union soldiers. 

On the far southern side of what is now the cemetery was a purpose-built village of homes, hospitals, and schools for recently freed slaves, Freedman's Village. It was created in hopes of easing the transition from slavery to freedom. However, as the cemeteries in the city began to fill, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, stationed at Arlington House, began to look for alternative locations. The wide expanse of open land outside the Lee family's former residence would be perfect. It was only an added benefit that burying Union soldiers behind the home of Robert E. Lee, whom Meigs considered a traitor for leaving the US Army and fighting with the Confederacy, would cement the government's claim to the land and keep the Lee family from wanting to move back.

The first burial, that of Private William Christman, who died of measles at nearby Lincoln General Hospital, occurred on May 13 1864. Section 27  has some of the earliest burials of the cemetery, including Private Christman, which can be found here. The section would quickly turn into what they referred to as the Contraband Cemetery, a place of rest for thousands of impoverished black men, women, and children.

Outside of Section 27, north of the cemetery, you can view the Marine Corps Memorial, often called Iwo Jima, after the event it depicts. Technically outside the cemetery, you can access it from the Ord Gate in Section 27. The skyscraping Netherlands Carillon is between the Marine Corps Memorial and the Ord Gate. The land was informally and later declared illegally, created as a military cemetery with the burials.

During the Civil War, the United States government confiscated the land when Mrs. Lee did not pay the $92.07 property tax in person, as required. When she sent a proxy to pay the tax, he was turned away, and the land was taken.

Though it had been used for burials through and after the war, in 1874, the Lee descendants sued. An 1882 Supreme Court case ruled in favor of the Lee family, and the house, land, and thousands of buried soldiers and sailors were returned to Robert E. Lee's son.

One year later, perhaps due to those thousands of buried men, the United States government formally purchased the land for $150,000 (approx 3 million today). The deed was signed by Custis Lee, son of Robert E. Lee, to the Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln.

At the turn of the 20th century, President McKinley made efforts to help with the reunification efforts. Confederate graves that had long been abandoned were disinterred and reburied in a new Confederate section. Though a US military cemetery, there are Confederates buried in Arlington.

Though it began as a cemetery for poor privates and freed slaves, through the years, the honor associated with Arlington National Cemetery increased, making it a chosen location for military men and women. After the assassination of beloved president, John F. Kennedy,  the cemetery also became a tourist destination for millions each year who came to pay respects at the JFK, and now his brothers, memorials. Kennedy is not the only, or the first, President buried at Arlington. President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft and his wife, Helen Herron Taft, were buried here in 1930 and 1943, respectively.

There are many notable women and black Americans buried in Arlington National Cemetery, both military and civilian. Arlington National Cemetery's 624 acres has more than 150 years of history, not just of its own but through the stories of the men and women buried here

and before them - those who lived and worked here.

  • Who can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Eligibility differs between in-ground burials and above-ground inurnment at the columbarium, though both are incredibly stringent as Arlington National Cemetery is the most prestigious national military cemetery in the country. For a more detailed list of requirements, please see our post on burial and inurnment requirements.

Eligibility for in-ground burial -- any service member of the Armed Forces killed in active duty; any retired veteran of the Armed Forces who made a career out of their military service and is entitled to receiving retirement pay;  recipients of high honors such as the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Purple Heart; any former prisoner of war whose service terminated honorably and who served on or after November 30th, 1993; anyone who has held elected office in the US government or served as a Supreme Court Justice, provided they also served in the military and were discharged honorably; the spouses and dependent children of anyone qualified to be buried at ANC.

Eligibility for above-ground inurnment -- any person qualified to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery is also qualified for inurnment at the columbarium; any former member of the Armed Forces whose service terminated honorably; members of the National Reserves, National Guard, or Air National Guard who are killed in active duty or who are retired and qualify to receive retirement pay (assuming they served as least 1 day on active duty); the spouses and dependent children of those qualified for inurnment at ANC.

  • Who qualifies for Full Military Honors? What type of honors are rendered?

The type of honors rendered at the funeral depends on the rank of the buried person. Enlisted Armed Forces members receive Standard Military Honors, including a casket team, a firing party, a military chaplain (if desired), and a bugler. Commissioned officers, warrant officers, those in the paygrade of E-9 or higher, and all enlisted members who are killed on active duty qualify for full military honors.

These services include all those rendered for Standard Military Honors, in addition to an escort platoon, military band, and a caisson.   Members of the Marines or Army who achieve the rank of Colonel or higher may request a riderless horse. Spouses and dependent children receive a casket team and military chaplain.

  • What is the Caisson Platoon?

The Caisson Platoon is part of the Third Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard, the oldest infantry unit in the United States Army.  A team of horses, either black or white, and several servicemen comprise this particular group.  They conduct one of the most solemn activities in the United States - carrying the remains of a U.S. serviceman to his or her final resting place. You can find out more about the Caisson Platoon here.

  • How many presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Two presidents are buried here: President William H. Taft and President John F. Kennedy.

  • How many people are buried here?

There are over 270,000 graves and more than 400,000 people buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

  • How many funerals take place each day?

There are an average of 27 burials Monday - Friday and 8 on Saturdays. There are no burials on Sundays. The cemetery receives an average of 47 burial requests every day.

  • Can family members be buried here?

Some. Spouses and dependent children of qualified service members are allowed to be buried or inurned at ANC.

  • What is the significance of the stones and coins on top of graves?

Placing stones or pebbles atop graves is a Judeo-Christian tradition of honoring that person, similar to laying flowers, which for ancient Jews was considered paganistic. However, unlike flowers, the stone will never die and thus is seen as everlasting. Stones are commonly seen at many of the Jewish graves but also at many of the more well-known graves around the cemetery.

The tradition of leaving coins at the grave of a loved one stems back to Greek mythology. In that tradition, coins were placed on the mouths of the deceased as they traveled down the river Styx as they would need to pay a token to Charon, the guard of the underworld, before entering. That tradition has since translated to the contemporary tradition of leaving coins as a means of paying one's respects. There is also a military tradition in which different denominations of coins connote different types of relationships one had with the deceased.

  • What happens to the coins left on top of graves at Arlington National Cemetery?

Coins that are left at the Kennedy Memorials and other well-known graves are collected and treated as donations to the cemetery, while those left at individual graves remain untouched. Some of the coins left in Section 60 may be collected and added to the Historical Memento Collection Project.

  • What does it cost to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Arlington National Cemetery covers all costs associated with burials and inurnment unless the family requests a customized headstone monument or private vault.

  • Are dogs allowed in the cemetery?

Well-behaved leashed dogs are allowed on the roadways and sidewalks. They are discouraged in the memorials and within the sections.

  • What is the Memorial Amphitheater used for?

Arlington National Cemetery is the birthplace of Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, the first-ever service was held on the steps of the Custis-Lee Mansion in 1868. The Old Amphitheater, which was recently renamed after Civil War veteran James R. Tanner, was constructed in 1873 to accommodate the growing number of attendees.

Finally, in 1920, the Memorial Amphitheater was dedicated. Located adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknowns, the new amphitheater is much larger and grander than its predecessor. Today, it is used almost exclusively for ceremonies on Memorial Day, and Veterans Day and for a sunrise service on Easter morning. Some, though few, funeral services are held within the amphitheater, such as John J. Pershing and Frank Buckles, the last American WWI veteran.

  • How is Arlington Cemetery organized?

Originally, the cemetery was organized by race and by rank. However, with the desegregation of the military in 1947, that policy ended. Today, veterans of the same wars are most often buried together. There are some remaining sections, such as the Confederate Section 16 and a Nurses Section.

  • Can you choose where to be buried?

The burial site of a loved one is determined by both the family and Arlington National Cemetery. Plots are very much dependent on availability. However, if a family elects to pay to erect a private monument, the deceased must be buried in an older section that can accommodate that.

  • Why are there different types of headstones/what is the significance of the different headstones?

The cemetery features 2 types of government-issued headstones: the most common is the white marble headstone featuring a religious symbol at the top, followed by the deceased's name, the branch of service, date of birth and death, and any military honors received; the second is also made of white marble, but features a shield and is dedicated to veterans who fought in the Spanish-American War (1898) or a war prior.

Families who are willing to fund the headstones themselves can erect a private monument of their choosing, though the design has to remain relatively simple. Before 1947, there was no limit, so to speak, on the design selected by the family, and so the oldest sections (such as those nearest Arlington House) feature a wide variety of crosses, Egyptian obelisks, and even an old cannon! However, that policy was eventually changed, and today, families who do choose to erect private monuments can only do so in the sections allotted for those types of headstones. Once those sections reach capacity, private monuments will no longer be allowed. For more, read our post on the various emblems on headstones."

  • Why are the graves near the house not uniform?

The graves near Arlington House are some of the oldest in the cemetery. As the Civil War dragged on, many of the cemeteries in and around Washington, D.C., neared capacity. It was thus decided to utilize the sprawling grounds of Arlington to bury the growing number of deceased veterans.

The first burials took place in Section 27, which is about a half mile from Arlington House. However, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs had an additional motive for burying soldiers on Lee's property: revenge. He desired that the burials take place as near to the house as possible so that Lee and his family could never return to their beloved mansion. Eventually getting his way, Meigs also requested that they face out toward the city from the hillside, so as to be clearly visible by the public.

  • Is the flag in front of Arlington House always at half-staff?

The flag is lowered to half-staff 3o minutes before the first funeral and is not raised to full-staff until 30 minutes after the last funeral has concluded. Considering that an average of 27 funerals are held each day other than Sundays, the flag will essentially always be at half-staff as there is always a funeral.

  • Where is JFK Jr. buried?

John F. Kennedy Jr. was not eligible to be buried here as he was not a member of the US Armed Forces and was otherwise not eligible - not being a permanently dependent child.  He and his wife Carolyn and her older sister Lauren died in a private plane crash in 1999 off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. They were each cremated, and their ashes were then scattered at sea.

First President Buried at Arlington: President William Howard Taft

On March 8, 1930, at the age of 72, former President William Howard Taft dies after weeks of illness. On that same day, unexpectedly Associate Justice Edward Terry Sanford also died. Though most people know Taft as a President, this was not the only high-ranking position he held during his life.

Taft's resume boast quite a few career highs, more than one of which makes him eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He had served as Governor of the Philippines, Secretary of War, 27th President of the United States and 10th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

He is the only man in U.S. history to have been both President and Chief Justice. His illness began only a few weeks before his death and caused him to retire from the bench of the Supreme Court.

When he left the presidency, it was in the face of defeat. His reelection campaign only garnered eight electoral votes. But the nation rekindled their admiration for him when he was nominated as Supreme Court Chief Justice.

The funeral services were in keeping with tradition and full military honors. President Taft laid in State in the Capitol Rotunda until the afternoon. Though the East Room of the White House was offered for services, Mrs. Taft asked that the funeral service be held in a church. President Taft was a congregation member at All Souls' Unitarian Church.

It was President Taft who requested no eulogies in his funeral service, and instead, they read works of Wadsworth and Tennyson.

Mrs. Taft and  their sons requested that the president be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and selected a spot in the northeastern part of the cemetery. At this point in the 1930s, it only had a few graves in the area.

A 14.5 foot tall granite Greek stele obelisk was sculpted by James Earl Fraser as the former President and Chief Justice's headstone. The Taft family paid for this monument as a personal request.

The War Department had placed an order for a marble headstone which would simple say President of the United States as his only accolade. His wife had this current monument made that listed both President and Chief Justice.

Thirteen years later, Helen Herron Taft died and was buried next to her husband. Two small foot stones record their initials.

The First President Buried in Arlington Cemetery: William Howard Taft's Grave can be found in Section 30 just to the north of the Women in Military Memorial Museum off Schley Drive, by Custis Walk.

Montgomery Meigs

The founding of Arlington National Cemetery followed a tumultuous four years as the country was embroiled in civil war. While many people and events helped to establish Arlington, none were more influential in the effort than Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs.

During the Civil War, Meigs served as the Quartermaster General for the Union Army. He saw to the outfitting of Union troops with food, supplies and ammunition, organized campaigns, and helped track the course of the war.

As caravans of Union casualties continued to fill the streets and cemeteries of Washington, the government was in desperate need of land in which to inter these fallen soldiers. In 1864 the Office of the Quartermaster General was tasked with identifying the site of a new government cemetery. Meigs knew just the place—Arlington, which had been the home and estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

During his early years as a soldier in the Army Corps of Engineers, Meigs had studied and worked under General Lee, whom he regarded as an impressive leader and sharp engineer. However, in May 1861, when word spread that Lee had resigned his army commission and joined Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Meigs turned from comrade to adversary

Meigs considered the entire Lee family to be traitorous criminals, and executed his vengeance by encouraging the government to seize the Lee family property at Arlington to be used as a cemetery for Union dead.

The Union Army occupation began in 1861, and by 1864, the army began burying soldiers along the Northern border of the Arlington estate. The government legally acquired the property in public auction in January of 1864, and Meigs began building his vision of a national cemetery.

The selection of Arlington is jointly credited to President Abraham Lincoln and General Meigs. The (perhaps apocryphal) moment of inspiration came when Lincoln and Meigs were visiting the military encampment at Arlington on May 13, 1864.

As the Presidential carriage toured the grounds, Lincoln and Meigs observed laborers unceremoniously loading wagons with dozens of dead soldiers from Arlington Hospital, bound for burial at the Soldier’s Home in Northern Washington. Meigs supposedly stopped the caravan and ordered the soldiers to be buried immediately on the spot. The Washington cemeteries were overflowing with Union casualties, and Meigs had found his new cemetery site.

While Meigs was known for his deep military sense of propriety and patriotic duty, he was also a shrewd and calculating bureaucrat, and held deep resentment toward Lee. In an effort to make Arlington as uninhabitable as possible, should the Lee family attempt to return, Meigs directed the first burials of prominent Union officers to be as close to Arlington Mansion, the Lee family home, as possible.

By June 1864, at least seven Union officers had been laid to rest on the borders of Mrs. Lee’s flower garden. By the end of the war in 1865, over 12,000 Union soldiers were interred at Arlington.

However, Meigs was still wary of the Lee family’s claims to the land and constantly cautioned his superiors to ensure the government’s hold on the property was legally secure. To further entrench Arlington as a national cemetery, Meigs set out to locate and rebury thousands of Union soldiers interred in battlefields, churchyards and wilderness throughout the country.

The initially modest effort to populate Arlington blossomed into a patriotic duty to find, identify, and honor Union casualties. Meigs sought to rebury as many Union soldiers as possible, along with identifying their name, rank, and unit, to help families identify their loved ones.

This campaign to recover the dead became one of the largest and most carefully orchestrated national efforts to date. “Such a consecration of a nation’s power and resources to a sentiment, the world has never witnessed,” observed Quartermaster Edmund Whitman of Meigs’s project.

In 1870, when the reburial efforts ended, over 315,000 soldiers had been accounted for. For those bodies that could not be identified, Meigs designed a mass grave site to honor the anonymous Union dead, serving as the first memorial to unknown soldiers in the cemetery.

After most of the re-internments had been completed, Meigs set to embellishing Arlington National Cemetery with his own aesthetic vision. Throughout his career, Meigs had demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and architecture, and had strong design sensibilities. While developing Arlington, Meigs also supervised designs for the National Museum (now known as the Arts and Industries Building), the Washington Aqueduct system, an expansion of the Capitol Building, including a new dome, and the Pension Office (now known as the National Building Museum).

At Arlington, Meigs designed and commissioned mausoleums, statuettes, Tanner amphitheater, and the McClellan Arch, which framed the cemetery’s main entrance. In a move characteristic of Meigs’ well documented ego, he inscribed his name in gold on the south column below the arch.

Meigs was involved in every step at Arlington—he chose plantings, directed workers in their repairs of the Mansion, and even dictated the composition of soil used to landscape the grounds. When the question of replacing wooden tombstones arose, Meigs recommended galvanized iron as a long lasting, cost-effective and durable option.

A nationwide headstone replacement program was enacted in 1873, but Meigs’s particular suggestion was rejected in favor of the marble and granite we see today.

Meigs’ final influences at Arlington involved securing his own family into the fabric of the cemetery. He claimed a beautiful hilltop plot just to the west of the Lee Mansion off Meigs Drive, in Section 1, Row 1.

Meigs’ wife, Louisa, was the first to be interred there in 1879. Meigs also had his son, Lt. John Rogers Meigs, who had been killed in the Civil War, moved to their plot, along with many other relatives.

Meigs’ last design for Arlington was his own massive white marble sarcophagus, elevated on a stone pedestal with the following self-composed epitaph, encapsulating the many roles he played in our National history: “Soldier, Engineer, Architect, Scientist, Patriot.”

Many of these sites are visited and discussed on our Arlington National Cemetery walking tour.

Arlington House

As you approach Arlington National Cemetery, it is hard not to notice the mansion at the top of the hill inside the Cemetery.  Arlington House, or to use its more official title, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, is one of the most arresting sites at the Cemetery, and one that is full of history and intrigue.  Plus, the view from outside the house is amazing - it's not A view of Washington, it’s THE view of the entire downtown Washington DC area.

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Arlington House has an incredible history, matching the cemetery surrounding it.  The house has historical connections to so much of early American history, not just the Civil War, but the American Revolution as well.

The house was built by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha (Custis) Washington, and step-grandson of George Washington.  Custis, or Wash, as he was known, built a thriving plantation overlooking Washington, DC and planned on filling it with his collection of Washington Memorabilia.

The land that the house and the cemetery are built on was Wash’s inheritance from his father and grandmother, and immediately upon Martha’s death, he started to plan Arlington House. Wash and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis had only one surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

She grew up at the plantation and married her childhood sweetheart, Robert E. Lee at Arlington House in 1831.  6 out of their seven children were born at Arlington House.

When Robert E. Lee left the Union Army to join the Confederacy in 1861, his wife remained behind at Arlington House, unwilling to leave her family’s home.  In May 1861 she received word that the Union was planning to occupy Arlington House, and managed to send most of her valuables away before she vacated.

The house became the headquarters for the Army of the Potomac.  In 1864, the Army confiscated the entire property, claiming that the Lee’s had not paid their taxes in person, a new law that was designed for exactly this purpose.

Later that year, the land surrounding the house became a cemetery, making it impossible for the Lees to return to their home, even after the war.  After their death their son sued the government, claiming they had obtained the house illegally, and won.

The deed to the house and the land was given back to the Lee family, who promptly sold it back to the US Army.  In 1955 Congress designated the house as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee.

Arlington House is an architectural marvel, even today.  It was designed to resemble a Greek temple, but not just any old Greek temple, the temple of Hephaestus in Athens.

Even when the house was constructed, houses were rarely built on this scale, with the grandiose outside portico being visible from miles away.  George Washington Parke Custis wanted the house to be visible from downtown Washington, which it actually still is.

Interestingly, Wash was planning on it being a memorial to George Washington, that didn’t prevent him from skimping on the building costs.  The huge columns in front of the mansion are designed to look like they are marble, but they are actually stucco covered with hydraulic cement and painted to look like marble and sandstone!

Extensive renovations have taken place at Arlington House, preserving this beautiful historic home for the future.  The rooms of the downstairs are set up the way they would have been when the Lee’s lived in the house so that visitors can get a sense of the life that the Lees led there.

You can also tour several of the surrounding buildings, the summer kitchen and more. Along with the magnificent views of the city, it truly is one of the highlights of Arlington National Cemetery.

Here are the particulars for a visit to the House:

Hours: Arlington House is open different hours from the rest of the Cemetery - it is open from 9:30am to 4:30pm, with last entry into the house at 4:00 pm.

Fees: It is completely free to visit the Cemetery and Arlington House.  On busier days there may be a delay to enter the House, and there are restrictions on the number of visitors who can go upstairs in the House at any one time due to structural considerations.

How to get there: As always, Metro is probably the best option, although there is a dedicated parking lot at the Cemetery.  The Arlington Metro stop on the Blue line takes you to within steps of the Visitors Center for the Cemetery.  From there, Arlington House is at the top of the Hill.

You can grab a map of the Cemetery at the Visitors Center or simply follow the signs up to the House.  Alternatively, take our Arlington Cemetery Tour for the full scoop on the entire Cemetery and Arlington House.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: December 25th, 2023
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