How You Can Visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

November 9, 2021Dustin Jones
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. On Tuesday, Nov. 9, and Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, for the first time in nearly a century, members of the public will be allowed to take part in a public flower ceremony at the tomb. US Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery.

For the first time in nearly a century, Arlington National Cemetery will allow the public to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The flower ceremony will take place Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 9-10, as part of the memorial’s 100th anniversary.

Attendees must register in advance, securing a time slot between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The event will take place rain or shine, and while ticket holders are encouraged to bring their own flowers, complimentary roses, Gerbera daisies, and sunflowers will be provided.

The iconic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has served as a sacred memorial at Arlington for 100 years, symbolizing the final resting place for America’s missing and unknown service members. Though the public can approach the tomb from the adjacent Memorial Amphitheater, the area around the tomb, known as the Plaza, has been strictly off-limits for nearly 100 years. The tomb is watched 24 hours a day, guarded by the sentinels of “The Old Guard,” the Army’s 3rd US Infantry Regiment. The president or vice president has traditionally laid a wreath at the tomb on Veterans Day, but the public’s opportunity to lay flowers this week is nearly unprecedented.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The 2013 Veterans Day wreath-laying ceremony. Every year on Nov. 11, the president visits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay his respects. Department of Defense photo by E.J. Hersom.

“The Tomb has served as the heart of Arlington National Cemetery. It is a people’s memorial that inspires reflection on service, valor, sacrifice and mourning,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, the executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said in a statement. “As a sacred memorial site and the grave of three unknown American service members, the Tomb connects visitors with the legacy of the U.S. armed forces throughout the nation’s history.”

To mark the 100th anniversary of the tomb on Thursday, a joint service flyover and a full honors procession will be held along with the traditional Veterans Day presidential wreath-laying.

Established Nov. 11, 1921, the tomb originally served as a final resting place for the remains of one unidentifiable American service member who was killed in World War I. With the remains serving as a national symbol of soldiers lost in every war, a round-the-clock honor guard has watched over the remains since they were exhumed in October 1921.

This was true even as the remains were transported to the US. An honor guard accompanied the remains onto the USS Olympia for transportation. When a horrendous storm struck the ship, the Marines aboard refused to leave the casket and seek shelter below deck. 

In a tradition that started soon after the tomb was installed, the 3rd Infantry Regiment sentinels perform a meticulously rehearsed, round-the-clock watch over the tomb. At rigid attention, sentinels walk 21 steps past the tomb — symbolizing a 21-gun salute — turn to face the tomb for 21 seconds, then return back past the tomb 21 more steps. The ceremony, including a formal changing of the guard between sentinels coming on and going off guard duty, goes on 24 hours a day.

When the casket was finally laid to rest at Arlington on Nov. 11, 1921, President Warren Harding bestowed upon the Unknown Soldier the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, according to the Society of the Honor Guard. Following the ceremony, European representatives also bestowed their nation’s highest military awards to the Unknown Soldier.

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Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones

Dustin Jones is a former senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine covering military and intelligence news. Jones served four years in the Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He studied journalism at the University of Colorado and Columbia University. He has worked as a reporter in Southwest Montana and at NPR. A New Hampshire native, Dustin currently resides in Southern California.

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