Your Guide to Funeral Planning | 05.14.2021

National Cemetery Traditions

National Cemetery Traditions


Cross Checked By: JOSHUA SIEGEL

Located in 40 states and Puerto Rico, the United States National Cemetery System consists of 171 burial places reserved for those who have served in the military in some capacity, as well as their spouses and dependents. Burials in a national cemetery are steeped in tradition and include time-honored customs that are specific to the military - from an Honor Guard detail to a three-volley rifle salute and the playing of “Taps”.

Perhaps the best-known of all of the national cemeteries is Arlington National Cemetery, which is the final resting place of many noteworthy figures, including President John F. Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Read on to learn more about some of the special traditions and customs that are unique to Arlington National Cemetery.

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    Arlington National Cemetery

    Located just outside of Washington, DC in Arlington, Virginia, Arlington National Cemetery is the largest national cemetery in the country; it spans more than 600 acres and is the final resting place of over 400,000 veterans, diplomats, heads of state and many others. 

    Arlington National Cemetery Traditions

    Arlington National Cemetery is home to many special traditions throughout the year, and visitors are encouraged to experience them firsthand. Below are a few of the cemetery’s most significant events and traditions.

    The Changing Of The Guard At The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier

    The changing of the guard is a precisely executed ceremony that occurs year-round, either once or twice per hour (depending on the time of year). It is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a marble memorial that commemorates unidentified service members who have died in combat; the Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, all of whom undergo rigorous training to be chosen for the position. 

    As part of the ceremony, the changing of the guard is announced and a new soldier walks to the Tomb before turning to the spectators and asking for silence. The soldier who is being relieved inspects the new soldier’s rifle; then both soldiers, along with the soldier who announced the guard change earlier, salute the Tomb. The new soldier must then complete a multi-step process of marching 21 steps and facing a certain direction for 21 seconds (the number 21 is symbolic of the 21-gun salute, which is the highest military honor that can be bestowed at a person’s funeral).

    Flags In

    One of the more enduring and meaningful traditions at Arlington National Cemetery is called Flags In. Occurring right before Memorial Day weekend, this tradition involves the placement of American flags at the grave of every servicemember. Flags In occurs at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery as well; in total, over 235,000 flags are placed at headstones, in niche rows, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on Chaplains’ Hill. The flags are then removed after Memorial Day.

    Memorial Day

    Arlington National Cemetery commemorates military members who have given their lives in service with a full program of events every Memorial Day. The program includes an Honors Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, followed by a service at the Memorial Amphitheater. In keeping with tradition, music is played during the service (typically by the United States Air Force Band), and the President of the United States delivers a speech. Roughly 5,000 visitors attend Memorial Day events at Arlington National Cemetery every year.

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    Veterans Day

    Arlington National Cemetery offers a program of events on Veterans Day, November 11, in honor of the nation’s military veterans. Similar to the Memorial Day services, Veterans Day activities begin with an Honors Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the late morning; afterward, there is an observance at the Memorial Amphitheater featuring music by the United States Air Force Band. Visitors are welcome to attend.

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