Ceremonies and Traditions
Just before Memorial Day weekend, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (the "Old Guard") honors America's fallen heroes by placing American flags at gravesites for service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery.
This tradition, known as "Flags In," has taken place annually since the Old Guard was designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment participates, placing small American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery's Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. Each flag is inserted into the ground, exactly one boot length from the headstone's base.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Sentinels (who are members of the Old Guard) place flags to honor the Unknowns. Army chaplains place flags in front of the headstones and four memorials located on Chaplains' Hill in Section 2.
All flags are removed after Memorial Day, before the cemetery opens to the public.
Two major annual remembrance ceremonies take place at Arlington National Cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater, on Memorial Day (last Monday of May) and Veterans Day (November 11). Some 5,000 visitors attend each of these national ceremonies, which are sponsored by the U.S. Army Military District of Washington. The president of the United States typically delivers an address at the Memorial Day ceremony.
Numerous military and government organizations also conduct annual memorial services at the cemetery. All ceremonies and special events are free and open to the public.
See photos of recent memorial ceremonies:
Offering flowers at a memorial site is a ritual that occurs around the world, symbolizing the beauty and brevity of life. Floral tributes are made each day at Arlington National Cemetery — at funeral services, public ceremonies and individual visits to a loved one's gravesite.
Formal ceremonies at Arlington often involve the laying of a wreath. These ceremonies typically take place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attended by ceremonial units from the uniformed services. You may have the opportunity to observe such a ceremony during your visit. You might even be taking part in one.
The most solemn ceremonies occur when the president of the United States, or the president's designee, lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to mark the national observance of Memorial Day, Veterans Day or some other special occasion. Ceremonial wreath layings also occur during state visits of foreign dignitaries, who pay formal respects to the sacrifices of America's veterans by placing a wreath before the Tomb.
Wreath layings by other public figures and organizations take place at the Tomb or at the scores of other memorials throughout the cemetery, although most are not marked with the same ceremonial pomp of the state events. These include annual observances by veterans' groups and special events such as the dedication of a marker or the commemoration of an anniversary.
Salute by cannon or artillery is a military tradition that originated in the 14th century. The 21-gun salute, commonly recognized by many nations, is the highest honor rendered. The custom stems from naval tradition, when a warship would signify its lack of hostile intent by firing its cannons out to sea until all ammunition was spent. The British navy developed the custom of a seven-gun salute because naval vessels typically had seven guns (and possibly also due to the number seven's Biblical and mystical significance). Because greater quantities of gunpowder could be stored on dry land, forts could fire three rounds for every one fired at sea — hence the number 21. With the improvement of naval gunpowder, honors rendered at sea increased to 21, as well. The 21-gun salute eventually became the international standard.
In the United States, the custom has changed over time. In 1810, the War Department defined the "national salute" as equal to the number of states in the Union (at the time, 17). This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations on Independence Day and whenever the president visited a military installation. In 1842, the 21-gun salute was designated as the "presidential salute," and in 1875 the United States followed Britain in adopting the 21-gun salute as its international salute.
Today, the U.S. military fires a 21-gun salute in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the president, ex-presidents and president-elect of the United States. The 21-gun salute is also fired at noon on George Washington's birthday, President's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the day of the funeral of a president, ex-president or president-elect.
Gun salutes for other U.S. and foreign military and civilian leaders vary in number, based on protocol and the honoree's rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers.
The 21-gun salute is not to be confused with the three-volley salute (or three-rifle volley) rendered at military honors funerals, which you might see or hear at Arlington National Cemetery.