Here comes the cliché: Freedom doesn’t come free. We hear that phrase thrown around so much that it loses its impact, but it is so true. One of the most humbling experiences of my life was taking a walk through Arlington Cemetery. The simple white headstones that adorn the graves of fallen heroes simply never seem to end. Men and women, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, who have given the ultimate sacrifice so that our country can have the freedom that we take for granted each and every day.
While a picture can begin to capture the sheer numbers of these grave sites; it’s nothing compared to standing amongst them. In every direction that you turn there are thousands of people laid to rest. How utterly tragic and how inspiring that all of these people were willing to lay down their lives for our country and our freedom. 400,000 and counting are buried at Arlington Cemetery–624 acres that are dotted with the white placards of lives lost.
Some of the graves seem as though they have been forgotten: no flowers, just a simple white piece of granite protruding from the ground. Others are piled high with stones, a Jewish traditions that signifies a visit to a grave of a fallen comrade.
Interestingly enough, Arlington Cemetery wasn’t always a cemetery, but used to be a private residence belonging to George Washington’s step grandson, Mr. George Washington Custis Lee. Custis left the property to his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the wife of Robert E. Lee. In 1861 the Lee family abandoned the property because of the Civil War. The land was used by federal troops as a camp. In 1863, Freedman’s Village was established on the property–an area providing education, housing, medical assistance, etc. to newly freed slaves.
After a tax dispute of approximately $92 the Lee family lost their home in auction to the US Government who purchased it for $26,800. After Mary Lee’s death her son sued for the property and won. He then sold the property to the federal government for $150,000. The government used the property as a burial ground because the casualties from the Civil War were too much for other local cemeteries to accommodate. On May 13, 1864, the first military burial took place for Private William Christmas.
Arlington National Cemetery is the burial site for many celebrated people but perhaps one of the most elaborate of memorials belongs to John F. Kennedy and his family. At Mrs. Kennedy’s request, her husband’s grave is marked with an eternal flame which she lit on November 25, 1963 at her husband’s funeral. The burial site has undergone drastic changes since the president was first laid to rest because of the number of visitors the gravesite receives (directly after his death there were up to 3,000 visitors per hour).
If you have never been to Arlington National Cemetery, you really should go at least once. It’s excruciatingly eye-opening. It’s solemn and beautiful and sad. It will make you realize the truth of war and that freedom is truly not free.