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Memorial Day: Arlington National Cemetery


Members of the Old Guard with the Washington Memorial in the back, place flags in front of every headstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 26, 2016. Soldiers were to place nearly a quarter of a million american flags at the cemetery as part of a Memorial Day tradition. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Members of the Old Guard with the Washington Memorial in the back, place flags in front of every headstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 26, 2016. Soldiers were to place nearly a quarter of a million american flags at the cemetery as part of a Memorial Day tradition. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)


Memorial Day is a national holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday in May. It is the day when Americans honor the women and men who have served in the military.

The Memorial Day holiday was first observed in 1868. The holiday was called Decoration Day. The observance was at what was then known as the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

It is now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

More than four million people visit the cemetery every year.

Memorial Day - Arlington 1868

Memorial Day - Arlington 1868

It is the most famous national burial place in the United States. It includes about 250 hectares of rolling hills, and trees that were planted hundreds of years ago. There are more than 8,000 trees of 300 species in the cemetery. Up and down the hills are lines of simple white headstones marking the graves. About 400 of the markers have gold letters on them. These are the burial places of those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.

Among those buried at the cemetery are military and political leaders, cabinet officers and Supreme Court justices. Astronauts, explorers and athletes are also buried there. So are chaplains, nurses, slaves and even war correspondents.

Arlington is on the land that once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson of George Washington. The cemetery holds the graves of soldiers who died in every war in American history. Some who fought and died in the Revolutionary War in the 1700s were moved there from a nearby cemetery.

Memorial Day - Tomb of the Unknowns

Memorial Day - Tomb of the Unknowns

The first military burial was on May 13, 1864 for Private William Christman, who died in the Civil War. On May 15, 1864, two unknown Union Soldiers were buried at Arlington. They were the first of almost 5,000 unknowns who are now buried at the cemetery. On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I. It is now the site of the famed Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Nearly 4,000 former slaves are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. One of them is James Parks. He dug the first graves in the cemetery. And he is the only person buried there who was also born on the property.

Two American presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. William Howard Taft was president in the early 1900s. John F. Kennedy was president in the 1960s. More people have visited his grave than any other in the United States.

Other famous people buried at the cemetery include Joe Louis. He was an Army sergeant in World War II. He was a world champion boxer. Robert E. Peary discovered the North Pole. Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee founded the Army Nurse Corps. And the remains of the seven astronauts who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded are buried in Section 46.

Sixty-five foreigners are also buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Britain has the most, with 26. South Vietnam has 10, including nine unknown soldiers.

Not everyone who gave military service to the United States may be buried at the cemetery. Those who can be buried there include anyone who died while serving on active duty or who retired from military. Also eligible are those who received high military awards, including the Medal of Honor, those who were injured in combat and former prisoners of war. Some federal government officials and the spouse and children of those buried at Arlington may also be eligible. There is no cost for the burial or funeral service.

Funeral at Arlington National Cemetery

Funeral at Arlington National Cemetery

Cemetery officials are worried that they will soon run out of space. So they have added an area where the ashes of people who chose to be cremated rather than buried can be placed. There are tens of thousands of spaces in the building, which is called a columbarium. The cemetery is also expanding by almost 11 hectares. This will add almost 30,000 burial places.

Since 1948, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry, The Old Guard, have placed small American flags in front of every headstone in the cemetery. This year, more than a thousand Old Guard soldiers placed more than 220,000 flags in front of each grave marker “to honor every individual buried at Arlington National Cemetery.”

Some of the Old Guard soldiers placed flags in front of the graves of soldiers they knew, in Section 60. Some have called it “the saddest place in America.” It is where some of the soldiers who died in America’s latest wars -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are buried.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Shelley Gollust and Christopher Jones-Cruise wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants

eligible – adj. able to be chosen for something; able to do or receive something

columbarium – n. a building or area where urns holding a deceased’s cremated remains are placed

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