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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Memory of solemn rituals at Arlington National Cemetery

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Above / The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery is an iconic national symbol of heartfelt emotion and history.

On December 7, 2023, I attended the funeral services for Master Gunnery Sergeant David Szablewski at Arlington National Cemetery. Dave was a family friend and godfather for our youngest son. My husband, Terry, and he served on the Naperville Fire Department where he was given the nickname Szeb.

Szeb always had a smile on his face and entertained us with his accordion at so many fire department functions. He was part of The Near Beer Band and played at one of the early Taste of Chicago festivals and at Ribfest. Always the proud Marine, he served during the Vietnam conflict, Desert Storm and served two tours in Iraq.

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David Szablewski also was known to share his music in the Canteen at the Judd Kendall VFW. (PN Photo 2015)

Every uniformed member or veteran of the armed forces is eligible for military funeral honors. There are 27 to 30 funeral services offered at Arlington each weekday and four or five services on Saturdays. All services for veterans include a casket team, a firing party, a bugler and the folding of and the presentation of the U.S. flag. The higher ranks also receive a marching element and a military band. Chaplain services may also be provided at the chapel. Over 400,000 service members, veterans and family members have been buried at Arlington.

After attending the services, I wanted to learn more about Arlington National Cemetery. George Washington Parke Custis established the Arlington Estate as a memorial to his grandfather, George Washington.

When Custis died he left the estate to his daughter, Mary, who had married U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in 1831. Upon Mary’s death, the property would be inherited by her oldest son. The Lees abandoned the property at the beginning of the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, the U.S. Army seized the property because of its strategic value to defend Washington D.C. during the war. Three forts were built on the property.

The first military burial at Arlington was conducted for Private William Christman on May 13, 1864. On June 15, 1864, Arlington officially became a national cemetery by order of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. By April 1868, more than, 16,000 individuals had been buried at Arlington. The original cemetery spanned 200 acres. Today more than 400,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are buried within its 639 acres.

Originally Arlington cemetery was considered to be a “potter’s field.” It was the final resting place for servicemen whose families could not afford to pay the transportation and burial costs of their family members who died in the Civil War.

In 1868, General John Logan declared that the graves at Arlington would be decorated with flowers every year on May 30 to honor the fallen service members buried there. This annual ceremony helped Arlington become the premier national cemetery. In 1900, Congress authorized a designated section for Confederate soldiers. Arlington was a segregated cemetery based on race and rank until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military.

Before we left the cemetery, we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is right and proper to pay honor to those who have sacrificed so much to preserve our freedoms.

As I drove past those thousands of headstones, I said a prayer for all individuals serving in the Armed Forces today and for their families. As the mother of a son serving in the Active Reserve, I also pray for a more peaceful world.

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Sue Jelinek
Sue Jelinek
Sue Jelinek welcomes story ideas from ship to shore. Contact her at jelinst@sbcglobal.net.

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