Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer.  Filled with picnics, pool parties, and parades, it’s a time of laughter and leisure.  And yet . . .

Memorial Day is also a time for honoring and remembering those who died while serving in our country’s armed forces.  Perhaps the most compelling Memorial Day observance is held at Arlington National Cemetery.  As Robert M. Poole notes in ON HALLOWED GROUND: THE HISTORY OF ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, “few images linger in the national imagination as vividly as this hallowed ground.”

The former executive editor of National Geographic, Poole explores the history and “age-old rituals” that make Arlington National Cemetery sacred, tracing its transformation from the plantation of a young U.S. Army Colonel named Robert E. Lee to national shrine. We travel from the Civil War’s “stench of death” and the horrific trenches of “The War to End All Wars,” through the “nastiest little war” in Korea and the shock of 9/11.  Poole shows how and why “no other nation goes to the effort that the United States does to recover and pay respects to its war dead.”

Poole enlivens our walk through Arlington’s haunting landscape with rich kernels of military history.  He relates the origins of the soldier’s lullaby we know as “Taps,” unearths the evolution of “dog tags,” and reveals the role Arlington National Cemetery played in the construction of that oddball shaped, five-sided building next door.

We meet heroic citizen-soldiers like sharecropper’s son Audie Murphy, whose standard issue tombstone is too small to list all of his 28 decorations.  Pennsylvania pig farmer Alton W. Knappenberger, who was “scared the whole time I was over there,” but risked “his life above and beyond the call of duty” at Anzio.  We follow the ill-fated odyssey of Michael Blassie, the Unknown of the Vietnam War.  And we keep vigil with the sentinels who guard the soldiers, “known but to God,” who rest at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

We also revisit that bleak weekend in November 1963 when we mourned President Kennedy.  Poole describes behind-the-scenes preparations for the President’s funeral, including the frantic, last-minute quest for an “eternal flame,” and the antics of Black Jack, the riderless horse who captivated a nation and bedeviled its handler.  President Kennedy’s burial forever changed Arlington National Cemetery.

Remember the reason for the season.  Make Memorial Day more than a three-day weekend!  Pay homage to those who gave their lives while serving our country by visiting ON HALLOWED GROUND: THE HISTORY OF ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY.

Cover of On Hallowed Ground by Robert M. Poole

NLS Annotation: Describes how the former plantation of Robert E. Lee’s family, which was confiscated during the Civil War, evolved into a national cemetery for veterans. Explains day-to-day operations and ceremonies. 2009.

For more about Arlington National Cemetery and “the saddest acre in America,” read Poole’s, SECTION 60: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY: WHERE WAR COMES HOME, DB 80705.

Meet author Richard M. Poole in this 2009 “Talk of the Nation” interview: