On May 13, 2014, Arlington National Cemetery kicks off a two-month sesquicentennial observance of its 1864 establishment. A final resting place for American military personnel killed in our nation’s conflicts, the cemetery’s rolling grounds also encompass the graves of veterans, certain of their family members, government leaders and a score of foreign military service members. Arlington is also home to the Tomb of the Unknowns, within which lie the remains of unidentified individuals killed in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. A 2010 controversy over misidentified grave sites and other issues of professional competence prompted the replacement of the cemetery’s senior leaders and the introduction of wide-ranging reforms in equipment, policies and practices. Arlington’s current executive director, Patrick K. Hallinan—who is also executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program in the Office of the Secretary of the Army—recently spoke with Military History about the cemetery’s past, present and future.
‘As I walk the ground, I read the headstones, and they speak to me about generations of service and sacrifice’
Tell us about Arlington’s history.
Arlington National Cemetery comprises land that belonged to Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who built a manor we call Arlington House. In 1857 he willed the 1,100-acre property to his surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who was the wife of Robert E. Lee. The Lee family vacated the property with the approaching Civil War, and in 1861 Federal troops seized the land and turned it into a camp and headquarters. A freedman’s village was established here in 1863 to provide former slaves with housing, education, employment training and medical care. The initial interments were a result of the Civil War, with the first, Private William Christman, taking place on May 13, 1864.
What other historical figures rest at ANC?
People from every walk of life are interred here, including Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy; and Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Warren Burger and Thurgood Marshall; Generals John “Black Jack” Pershing, Omar Bradley and James Doolittle; the last American World War I veteran, Frank Buckles; Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the man who designed what is now the District of Columbia; and many, many others.
Give us an idea of ANC’s current specifications and operations.
Arlington is presently 624 acres and staffed by 170 full-time employees, approximately 10 percent of whom are military members. The 3rd U.S. Infantry, part of the Military District of Washington, provides personnel for ceremonies and maintains the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is $70.8 million. We inter approximately 7,000 veterans and eligible family members each year, averaging 25 to 30 funerals a day. The cemetery comprises approximately 70 numbered sections, with three or four open at any given time to accommodate the funerals being conducted, and more than 20,000 columbarium niches [which house urns bearing cremated remains]. We also host some 3 million tourists each year from all over the world.
How does ANC fit into the larger national cemetery system?
The Department of the Army runs Arlington, which is also responsible for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C., and about 40 other cemeteries on Army posts throughout the country. Other well-known stateside cemeteries—such as Punchbowl in Hawaii and Riverside in California—are run by the National Cemetery Administration, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the overseas cemeteries, such as the one above Omaha Beach in Normandy, are operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission. So while Arlington is owned and operated by the Army, we have excellent collaborative working relationships with the VA and ABMC, sharing best practices and training.
What are the eligibility requirements for interment?
Anyone who dies while on active military duty is eligible, as are veterans who served honorably for at least four years and, of course, retirees who served honorably.
Are all funerals held here the same?
There are actually two types of funerals based on the individual’s rank or status—standard honors and full military honors. The first consists of a casket team from the deceased’s branch of service, a firing detail, a bugler and, at the family’s request, a chaplain. Full honors include all of those things with the addition of a horse-drawn caisson and, depending on the person’s rank, an escort platoon, a military band and cannon salutes.
Do you have plans for expansion?
We just opened a new columbarium, with more than 20,000 niches for cremated remains. We also have a plan called the Millennium Project, which would add approximately 27 acres formerly belonging to the Army’s Fort Myer. Once that expansion is completed, we anticipate having space for more than 27,000 new burials, both for caskets and cremated remains, and we believe that will take us out to 2036. We’re also looking at a southward expansion onto the grounds of the old Navy Annex, which would allow full burial operations for caskets, cremations and a columbarium out to 2050.
How did ANC respond to the 2010 controversy?
Arlington had some significant management and oversight issues, which ultimately led to the departure of the former superintendent and deputy superintendent. What we encountered were out-of-date cemetery practices, a lack of standard operating procedures and training, outdated equipment and poor record keeping. The secretary of the Army brought in a new leadership team and created the executive director position—I’m the second person to hold this position. In less than two years we’ve eliminated the identified shortcomings and transformed Arlington into a state-of-the-art facility. Our staff is properly trained, responsible and accountable, and we’ve instituted a digitized record-keeping system that tracks every interment and every burial. We’ve moved light years beyond where we were, and we continue to make great progress both in technology and operations.
How does the future look for ANC?
I am very confident. Arlington is already setting a positive example for other cemeteries around the country. Our staff development, strong planning and streamlined operations will carry us forward. Our embrace of technology will continue to move us into the digital age and will allow visitors to use their smartphones to locate their loved ones’ grave sites or see a picture of the headstone. Our renovated welcome center and self-directed tours will further enhance the visitor experience. And Google is preparing to release the Arlington National Cemetery street view, which will allow people to visit us remotely.
What sort of 150th anniversary observances are you planning?
We’re doing five weeks of commemorative events, kicking off on May 13 with a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of our first military burial, Private Christman. We’re releasing a new book on Arlington’s history, and we’re going to host a series of special lectures and tours. We’ll conclude our observance program with a wreath-laying ceremony on June 15, the anniversary of the day in 1864 when Arlington was formally established as a national cemetery.
What is your most treasured aspect of ANC?
When I look across the cemetery’s many acres and see all the headstones, I see service and sacrifice by people from every walk of life, every religious denomination, every background. There are many heroes here who made significant contributions to the nation, but when I look at the headstones, it reminds me that everyone interred here is someone’s hero. Every headstone tells a story, and as I walk the ground, I read the headstones, and they speak to me about generations of service and sacrifice. I am a veteran myself, and these headstones are physical symbols of the people who secured our liberty, defended our freedoms and protect us to this day. When I see a passing caisson, a flag-draped casket or hear the last notes of “Taps,” it never fails to move me. I believe every American should make a pilgrimage to Arlington.