Arlington is the national cemetery established during the Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, previously the estate of Mary Anna Custis Lee, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Robert E. Lee. At the outbreak of the Civil War, most military personnel who died in battle near Washington, D.C., were buried at the United States Soldiers’ Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or Alexandria Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, but by late 1863 both were nearly full.
On July 16, 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead, and put the U.S. Army Quartermaster General in charge of this program. In May 1864, Union forces suffered large numbers of dead in the Battle of the Wilderness. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs ordered that an examination of eligible sites be made for the establishment for a large new national military cemetery. Within weeks, his staff reported that the Arlington Estate was the most suitable property in the area. The property was high and free from floods (which might unearth graves), it had a view of the District of Columbia, and it was aesthetically pleasing. Given that it was also the home of General Robert E. Lee, there was a political consideration to the recommendation. The first military burial at Arlington, for William Henry Christman, was made on May 13, 1864. The US Army remains in charge of Arlington even as most national military cemeteries are now the work of the Veterans Administration.
From its initial 200 acres, the site has grown to 639 acres. Today, approximately 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery including some 400 Medal of Honor recipients. Service members from every one of America’s major wars, from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts, are interred at Arlington. Only two U.S. presidents, William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2020 there were approximately 22 million living armed forces members (active duty and retired), and veterans eligible for less than 95,000 remaining burial spaces. A planned Southern Expansion project will add 37 acres of additional burial space for the nation’s veterans. Southern Expansion includes the area nearest the Air Force Memorial and a part of the former grounds of the Navy Annex. However, expansion alone will not keep Arlington National Cemetery open to new interments well into the future. Without changes to eligibility, Arlington National Cemetery will be full for first burials (eligible member or spouse) by the mid-2050s.
Congress has mandated that Arlington plan so that it will have available capacity through 2170 (150 years). While there is some possibility of expanding the acreage, it is limited and will be controversial. The current working plan to meet the congressional mandate is to expand the use of columbarium burials and change the eligibility for in-ground burials
The proposed eligibility rule awaiting final signature for In-ground burials is:
- Members holding Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Award, and Silver Star
- Any active duty member killed in action
- Any active duty member/retired/veteran holding a Purple Heart
If a member is eligible, then also eligible for the same grave site are spouse(s), children who passed away before their 18th birthday, and several other special categories. This means that if, tragically, a child passes away, they can be buried at Arlington, anchoring the grave site for the eligible members.
The proposed eligibility rule for above-ground burials
- All retired members not covered above
- All veterans with an Honorable Discharge (not a General Discharge)
If these rules are applied, the 150-year goal will be met.
Given the number of eligible veterans and the passing away of veterans from the Korean War, Vietnam War, and wars in the Middle East, scheduling a burial at Arlington requires patience. “Eligibility Date” is set when ANC receives all the required paperwork (death certificate, DD-214, and one or two other items). It should be remembered that ANC has a myriad of other functions apart from just burials. Also, some burials can occupy a large part of the park and staff if full honors are required. Full honors can take as many as 100 military personnel. The current scheduling (July 2022) waits are:
- In-ground burial with honors – 3 weeks from eligibility determination
- Burials with honors waived – held Saturday mornings; very little waiting time
- Above-ground burials with honors – 18 months
The friars of St. Francis assists with Catholic interments at Quantico National Cemetery. Quantico is one of 155 national military cemeteries managed by the Veterans Administration.