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Honoring the final wishes of a military veteran at Arlington National Cemetery

Folding the flag at the burial in Arlington National Cemetery while soldiers in background wait to offer the 21 gun salute.

Honoring the final wishes of a military  veteran at Arlington National Cemetery
November 27
08:01 2019

By Robin Hurdle

It is one of the most sacred national cemeteries in the United States. 

According to Arlington National Cemetery website, the first military burial took place there on May 13, 1864, for Private William Christman of Pennsylvania. Today, there are over 400,000 graves with about 30 new graves added a day.

Members of my family have honorably served in the military throughout the years, from great-grandfathers, uncles, my father and brother. On November 21 I had the honor to attend the burial of my uncle, M.Sgt. Lawrence S. “Luke” Holcomb, at Arlington. Uncle Luke, a retired Vietnam veteran with over 22 years of service, died at the Veteran’s Hospital in Salisbury, N.C., on Sept. 7.

For over two years I cared for Uncle Luke and now I honored his dying wish – to be buried among his brothers-in-arms who he fought beside and served with during his career in the U.S. Air Force. 

Other military families may wonder if they or their loves can be laid to rest in Arlington. The VA.gov or the Arlington National Cemetery websites are helpful in answering questions and offering guidance to plan a military burial. There is a pre-eligibility form that must be signed by the veteran that will help to expedite the process when the time comes for burial. The pre-need decision letter only shows eligibility, but does not reserve a gravesite. You can choose to have your loved one buried in a national cemetery near their hometown or at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington has more restrictions as far as who can be buried in-ground (interment), but all who have served in the military or reserves with an honorable discharge can have their urn placed in Arlington’s columbarium. Keep in mind that if the veteran’s hometown is in another state, the family is responsible for making arrangements to get their loved one’s remains to Arlington. The funeral home will keep the remains until the date of transfer.

Since there are so many burials at Arlington, it can take three to six months to have the service. (We had a memorial service at home for my uncle since many family and friends would be unable to attend the burial in Arlington.) Having my uncle’s pre-eligibility form submitted a year before his death made our wait for a burial date at Arlington much shorter. However, you will have to be flexible with the date and time that you are given. Once all documents have been accepted, Arlington will give you three dates to choose from and your family will need to make the decision quickly if you want your loved one to be buried at Arlington.

Arlington coordinates the plans for the funeral. On the day of the funeral, our family and friends arrived at the Administration building and was guided to the family room to wait for the time the service was to begin. The funeral procession followed the hearse and was guided to the gravesite. The service was performed by a military chaplain and lasted about 20 minutes, including a 21-gun salute, the playing of Taps by a bugler standing among the field of gravestones, and the presentation of the flag that was on his coffin to his daughter. We were then led back to our cars to proceed out of the cemetery. A soldier remained at attention at the gravesite until the last of our cars were out of sight. 

I must admit that I was very nervous while waiting to be led to the cemetery, but once I stood before my uncle’s grave on that cold November afternoon, I had a feeling of pride and humbleness all at the same time. I was thankful that I could be a part of this solemn service on such sacred grounds. My uncle was finally home with his men and my mission was fulfilled.

My advice to anyone thinking about a military burial is to take the time to learn the procedures that need to be followed. Knowing what to expect will make an emotional time a little more peaceful.

For more information, visit https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Funerals/Attending-a-Funeral/Order-of-Events.

Robin Hurdle is married with two grown sons. She and her husband Scott live in Lexington with her three dogs. Robin enjoys an adventurous life and has no plans to stop chasing her dreams. She is a current student at Salem College where she is pursuing a degree in design with a minor in studio art. She enjoys volunteering in the community, mission trips, and writing in her free time.

Editor’s note: M.Sgt.Holcomb is the brother of Judie Holcomb-Pack, The Chronicle’s associate editor.

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