The Women Who Ensure No Servicemember is Buried Alone

Arlington National Cemetery, the most notable military burial ground in the United States, opened in 1864, during the American Civil War. Its 600+ acres are the final resting place for more than 400,000 American servicemembers and two American Presidents, William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy. According to its official website, more than three million people visit the cemetery in a typical year. Some visit the gravesite of a lost loved one, others are there to see the memorials to JFK or other famous Americans, and some go to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And some are there for funerals.

And some of those funeral-goers are there rather often — even though they don’t know the person being buried.

In 1948, Gladys Vandenberg was visiting Arlington when she and her husband noticed something particularly disturbing: a standard military burial, with a chaplain and honor guard, but no other attendees. The servicemember being laid to rest was being buried alone. And Gladys Vandenberg was in a position to do something about it. She was married to Hoyt Vandenberg who was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and she was an active member of the Officers’ Wives Club. She decided that as long as she had the power to do so, no Air Force member would have a funeral so sparsely attended. She brought the matter to the Officers’ Wives Club and they agreed — one of them would go to every Air Force funeral at Arlington to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. Over time, the other branches of the military followed suit, and today, a member of an organization known as the “Arlington Ladies” attends every military funeral at the hallowed cemetery. Volunteers cover each of the 20-30 burials each weekday, with some attending as many as ten in one day.

The women are there to represent the branch of government in which the deceased served; as We Are the Mighty notes, “she’s not there to grieve but to honor the fallen..” Each Lady follows a formal ritual for each servicemember. She is escorted by a member of the honor guard and per We Are The Mighty, if there are grievers in attendance, she “bows to the grieving, hands them two notes [as seen above], and is escorted away. The notes include an official one from the service Chief of Staff and his wife – and a handwritten note from the woman herself.” If there is no one else in attendance, the Arlington Lady takes a more active role. In 2020, Military Families magazine spoke with a Lady representing the Navy, who said that when no grievers are present, “she is presented with the flag, takes the time to honor the deceased’s service and then bids fair winds and following seas to the service member.”

As of 2016, “about 200 women (in the past, their numbers also included two men) participate in the program at any given time,” according to AARP., and “each has a connection to the service as wife, mother, widow or veteran.’ In total, the group is estimated to have attended more than 50,000 funerals since 1999.

Bonus fact: Arlington National Cemetery is located where it is, in part, to spite Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the Civil War broke out, the Union levied a tax on all Confederate property and required that landowners pay the tax in person (which, given that they were rebelling, wasn’t going to happen). The United States used the non-payment of taxes to seize property, including Lee’s property in Arlington. And when the Union ran low on place to bury its war dead three years later, Lee’s home became a good option — burying people there would effectively prevent the traitorous Lee from ever moving back home. The government sold Lee’s entire estate to the entity building the cemetery. After the war, though, Lee’s wife sued, arguing that the government should only have sold just enough to cover the unpaid taxes, and the Supreme Court agreed. The government ended up paying Lee’s wife $150,000, or the equivalent of more than $4 million today.

From the Archives: Why We Give 21-Gun Salutes: Another tradition of military burials.