One of my favorite destinations during my lunchtime bike rides is Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington County, Virginia (MAP), directly across the Potomac River from D.C. via the Arlington Memorial Bridge. I choose to ride there fairly frequently because there is so much to see and take in there, and there are always funerals, ceremonies or other events going on. On this ride, I was privileged to witness an honors funeral, and it was a emotional and meaningful ceremony.
The primary mission of Arlington National Cemetery is to function as the nation’s premier military cemetery and shrine honoring United States soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen who died in battle, or is a veteran, or a prominent military figure or a U.S. President. Families come from all over the country to bury their loved ones at Arlington. And in addition to the fact that it is some of our nation’s most hallowed ground, one of the reasons they come to Arlington is because of the rich history of military honors that makes the services there so special.
The most common service, referred to as standard military honors, is available to any enlisted service member or officer. The standard honors consist of a six-man honorary detail to serve as pallbearers, a rifle party consisting of an odd number of service members of between 3 and 7 members depending on the rank of the deceased, and a bugler to play taps, as well as a chaplain. The casket is transported via a horse-drawn limbers and caissons, or a hearse. The pallbearers carry the flag draped casket to the grave and hold the flag over the casket while the chaplain speaks. Following the committal service the firing party is called to attention and fires a three-volley salute. Fighter jets from the Air Force may also perform an aerial flyover known as the missing man formation. The lone bugler then plays taps, at a distance 30 to 50 yards from the grave site while a “Final Salute” is given. This is followed by the pallbearers folding the flag and presenting it to the deceased’s next of kin.
Arlington National is the only military cemetery in the United States that offers on a regular basis a full military honors funeral. This type of funeral is available at the family’s request to officers and warrant officers, and may consist of a procession to the gravesite that may include a marching band, a marching escort of troops, and a four-man color guard. Included in this type of service may also be a caparisoned horse, without a rider, with boots reversed in the stirrups. The horse follows the caisson carrying the casket. The chaplain joins the procession as well, in front of the limbers and caissons, and behind the escort, band, and color guard. Once at the gravesite, the service is identical to the standard honors service described above, with the exception that the band plays while the casket is taken to the grave and while the flag is being folded, the entire element that makes up the full honors ceremony remains throughout the service.
Arlington National Cemetery currently serves as the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families. And that number continues to grow. The cemetery remains active with funeral services Monday through Saturday, conducting between 27 and 30 services each week day and between 6 and 8 services on Saturdays. Funeral services are held from Monday through Friday, except Federal holidays, between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Saturday services are held from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for placements and services for cremated remains that do not require military honors or military chaplain support. Services are not scheduled on Saturdays that precede a Federal holiday on Monday.
So if you are privileged enough to be able to visit Arlington National Cemetery, keep in mind that it continues to be an active military cemetery, and display the proper respect that is due. And if there is an opportunity to view an honors funeral while you are there, the experience is very much worth it.