Memorial Day At Arlington: 'Flags In'

It's Memorial Day weekend, the shopping malls are packed and the burgers are on the grill. However, even with the long-weekend consumerism, Memorial Day is still a special time. Few things evoke the meaning behind Memorial Day more than the rows of American flags placed in front of each grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery. As Q13Fox reports, the tradition of placing the flags is a relatively recent one, which only dates back to 1948.

"The mission is carried out by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, nicknamed 'The Old Guard.' The unit puts every available soldier to work, planting small flags in front of the more than 230,000 grave markers."
The Old Guard is based at Fort Myer, Virginia, which borders the cemetery. The lines of brilliant white monuments are only a few hundred feet from the stables of The Old Guard's Caisson Platoon. These are the horses you see at military funerals in Arlington, pulling a caisson with the flag-draped coffin.

Memorial Day At Arlington National Cemetery
[Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]The flags at Arlington are placed on the Thursday before Memorial Day in an event known as "flags in." They are "removed after Memorial Day, before the cemeteries open to the public."

The ceremony which became Memorial Day was actually first held at Arlington, writes The Telegraph.

"It started as Decoration Day in Arlington National Cemetery, and according to the Veterans Administration, the speeches were given from the veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee."
Although there are thousands of military cemeteries across the United States and several for those buried overseas, Arlington remains the nation's resting place for the fallen. Aside from soldiers from every war the U.S. has fought in, there are presidents, scientists, and astronauts buried under the shade of the Memorial Arboretum. May 30 was chosen as "Decoration Day" as the flowers would be in full bloom.
"According to the [Veterans Administration], Maj. Gen. John A. Logan who started Decoration Day in 1868 wanted the soldiers' graves decorated with 'the choicest flowers of springtime.' And he admonished, 'We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.'"
The Old Guard also places flags at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery, Washington, D.C. as well as the Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall at Arlington. The Arlington website writes that "Army Chaplains place flags in front of the four memorials and the headstones located on Chaplain's Hill," and the famous Sentinels "place flags at the gravesites of the unknown interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."

With its acres of crosses, tombstones, and memorials, Arlington can appear to be a never-ending haven of peace; however, it is actually just about crammed full. According to NPR, the cemetery would have filled up by this year, but the "new columbarium [which] added 20,000 spots."

Memorial Day At Arlington National Cemetery
[Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]The Millennium Project, a "27-acre expansion on the north side of the grounds," which is already underway, aims to add almost 30,000 internment sites. Considering there are around 7,000 burials at Arlington each year, even the new area will soon be full.

Of course, there was some controversy surrounding the Millennium Project. Arlington is a treasured and historic location after all. The project had to carefully consider the impact on the cemetery aesthetics, as well as the arboretum.

"To balance preserving trees as old as the Civil War and making room, the cemetery and the National Park Service, which manages part of the grounds, have had to consider the impact on trees...Some of the oldest trees there are 250 years old."
As long as Arlington remains, "flags in" will continue to honor every grave in the cemetery. Memorial Day is more than barbecues and sales, it's a day to remember those who died for our country. It's a day to honor their final resting place, even if only with a flag.

[Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]