April 21, 2006
The last funeral at Arlington National Cemetery
by Lieutenant Colonel Gaylord Thomas
Air Force Honor Guard Commander
It may sound odd, but the day is coming when there will no longer be room to bury our soldiers on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington has become the most sacred ground in the United States, and rightly so, although the vision at its beginning certainly didn't predict it would happen that way. So when will that day come when we lay the last soul to rest there? And what will that final service be like, knowing it is the last?
Arlington National Cemetery means a lot of different things to different people. To some, touring Arlington is a chance to catch a glimpse of history -- each head-stone among the thousands represents the life of a different person. Each has several stories to tell, whether it's the individual's heroism in war, uprightness in service to our nation or perhaps some other fame they lay claim to. To others, a visit to Arlington is to mourn the death of a family member, a dad, mom, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, uncle or aunt, or just a friend.
Each visit can mean so many things to so many different people, but the sacredness of the ground is agreed upon. There is no other cemetery in the nation that has heroes from every war or conflict since the Revolutionary War.
And while that is the cemetery's past, the future may be uncertain. It's hard to imagine that many of the honor guard troops who are laying members of their services to rest today may not have a place in the same hallowed grounds when their time comes. But when you make that realization, it does put things into a different perspective.
Arlington continues to expand, but all of this known 40-acre expansion will only project available burial space to somewhere around 2060. When you take into consideration the average age of honor guard members performing their solemn duty today, you realize they could live to see the last person buried there, barring further expansion.
Will the final Arlington funeral be a State Funeral for a president? Likely not. Only two former presidents, John F. Kennedy and William H. Taft, are buried there. The current trend for our former presidents is to be buried at or near their personal libraries in their hometowns.
It is more likely that the final Arlington funeral will be for a normal person like you or me. It could be someone who retired long ago, or perhaps it will be an active duty death from another conflict at the time.
The day will come when the demand for caissons will trickle to almost nothing. Full honors funerals on a daily basis will be the exception and not the rule as burials eventually slow and no more space is available. Spouses of former military members whose death preceded theirs will be buried in a predesignated space. There will be no flag to be presented and nobody will be there to play taps.
But Arlington will remain the same hallowed ground and the honor guards will not likely leave the Washington area with so much to do ceremonially at the Pentagon, the White House and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. But perhaps The Tomb will be a joint-service endeavor, as arguably it should be even now, because even the last "unknown" laid there from the Vietnam conflict was eventually identified as an Airman and removed.
As commander of the Honor Guard, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've been asked about the Air Force Honor Guard's role with The Tomb. So many people "assume" it is a joint service venture or else they might more simply want to know where The Tomb of the Unknown Airman or Unknown Sailor are. Indeed, the long term vision for Arlington National Cemetery should be all inclusive, with all services present even after the requirements for rendering honors at gravesite have migrated to a more active national cemetery.
That last funeral will likely be as obscure as the first -- no press, no notoriety. It will merely have the distinction of being the last, someday noted by a historian just as the first is now a footnote within the history of the cemetery. Most people don't even know who the first was (Mary Randolph, a descendent of Pocahontas buried in 1828), or where she's buried, and a hundred years from now, they will likely walk past the last burial site in much the same manner they walk past this grave, now almost 200 years old.
Posted: 21 April 2006