Arlington National Cemetery

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Dec. 13 1997 3:30 AM

Arlington National Cemetery

Dying to get in? Here's how.

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Arlington National Cemetery, "the nation's most hallowed military burial ground," was born in an act of theft: The U.S. government confiscated it in 1861 from Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, after he took command of the army of Northern Virginia. The first of the Union dead buried there was Pvt. William Christman, a member of the Pennsylvania regiment who saw as much combat as did now-disgraced Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence--none.

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Of the United States' 114 national cemeteries, only Arlington is administered by the Department of the Army. All the rest fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Arlington contains the remains of 240,000 dead. It also contains several monuments, including the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Tomb of the Unknown Dead from the Civil War, the latter a granite tomb that holds the remains of 2,111 Civil War soldiers. There are also monuments honoring women in the military, the victims of the failed Iran rescue mission, the slain Kennedy brothers, the victims of the space shuttle Challenger mission, the Rough Riders, and the victims of the USSMaine (its mast was salvaged from Havana harbor and brought to Arlington).

"The event that thrust us into the national spotlight was the burial of President Kennedy in 1963," says cemetery superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. Only 1 million people visited the cemetery the year before JFK was assassinated, the Washington Post reports. During the six months following the assassination, 9 million came, and by 1968, the Kennedy shrine was attracting 7 million people a year.

"Requests for burials rose by 400 percent" following JFK's televised burial, the Post continues. As late as 1967, any veteran with an honorable discharge was eligible for burial in Arlington, and the cemetery had only a year's worth of plots in reserve. To conserve space, the government adopted new eligibility rules that made the cemetery a more exclusive--and therefore more attractive--address for the dead.

Although Arlington remains the prestigious address, any veteran with an honorable discharge automatically qualifies for burial--with military honors--in one of the nation's veterans cemeteries.

Last month, the Associated Press reported the arcane rules currently in effect for who can be buried in Arlington:

Military personnel who died on active duty;

The heavily decorated, including those who won the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, or Purple Heart;

Long timers with 20 years of active duty or active reserve service who qualify for retired pay upon retirement at age 60;

Those retired for disability reasons;

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