One of my very best friends was buried at Arlington National Cemetery earlier this month. She earned that honor as the wife of a retired Air Force pilot who was on active duty during the Vietnam War. When he visited last Wednesday I talked with him about his wife’s valiant fight with cancer during the last three years and her beautiful final resting place at Arlington.
More than 220,000 white marble headstones line the hills of the cemetery. At each grave site, as we approach Memorial Day, an American flag is proudly posted, including two inside the tomb of the unknown soldier to honor our fallen brothers and sisters who gave their life specifically for this flag. It’s an annual tribute, a tradition that started in 1948: the flags are distributed and delivered by hundreds of soldiers from the Old Guard. One by one, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are all paid homage with red, white, and blue. It’s an exhausting and emotional task that takes about four hours to complete. The soldiers from the Old Guard consider this task a privilege, not a job.
A new columbarium has opened at Arlington National Cemetery, just in time for Memorial Day. Columbarium Court No. 9, as it’s called, has more than 20,000 niches for U.S. military veterans and their families. Each niche in the two-acre columbarium has space for 3-4 urns. The project cost $15.6 million and began in January 2012. Columbarium Court No. 9 is 2.5 times bigger than the cemetery’s next-largest columbarium. This project required near perfect quality and pristine finishes ensuring longevity and suitability in the green-scape of Arlington National Cemetery.
Columbarium Court No. 9 is nearly the length of two football fields at 116-feet wide, 11-feet tall and 540-feet long. The project features interior and exterior landscaping with a central water fountain, new irrigation and underground electrical systems and storm water management. The columbarium will help extend Arlington National Cemetery’s effective life as a final resting place for the country’s war dead. While the cemetery will always remain open to the public, it will eventually run out of space for new burials.
Without the Columbarium Court No. 9 expansion, Arlington National Cemetery would have run out of niche space in 2016. By adding more than 20,000 niche spaces for our veterans and their families, Columbarium Court No. 9 is extending the life of the cemetery for years to come. Arlington National Cemetery’s Millennium Project will include a new columbarium and additional in-ground burial spaces — for up to 30,000 military veterans and their families — but this will also result in the loss of about 800 older trees.
Over the next few days, cemetery officials expect tens of thousands of visitors to pass through the cemetery gates to honor the service members buried here. On Monday, formal Memorial Day events get underway at 10:30 a.m. with a U.S. Navy band concert followed by the wreath-laying ceremony.
In observance of Memorial Day, commemorating the men and women who died while in the military service, the United States flag is displayed at Half Staff from sunrise until noon. The flag, when flown at Half Staff, is first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. At noon, the flag is raised to the top of the staff until it is lowered for the day.
While we honor and commemorate the heroic men and women who died for our country — and who saved my life and the lives of my mother and little sister — let us also treasure and take care of the many veterans who are still with us. They deserve the best.
Until next time,