With the brilliant white sarcophagus overlooking the nation’s capital; the guard marching twenty-one steps in front of it; the inspection of the relief sentinel, and the crowds staying a respectful distance away, the scene at the Tomb on the Unknown Soldier seems unchanging.
Except it’s not. How visitors interact with the Tomb, its design, and how it’s guarded has changed greatly over the years.
The tomb was constructed in 1921. At that time people were able to walk up to the tomb to pray, lay a wreath, conduct a service, or just take a photo.
But in 1925 a visitor to the tomb saw something he thought disrespectful: Picnicking at the tomb. It should be noted, however, that at that time picnicking in cemeteries was not unusual. In the late 19th century cemeteries were the closest things to public parks. And, with epidemics raging and one in ten women dying in childbirth, a visit to the cemetery was a common occurrence. While European churchyard cemeteries were austere with reminders of eternal punishment, in the new world cemeteries were often open inviting gardens and woods. And people flocked to them to socialize in the fresh air.
The tomb was constructed at a time when improvements in health care decreased early deaths. Public parks became more common and cemetery picnicking became less so. And the complaint about picnicking led to the first fence around the tomb, followed by the first guard.
The tomb is completed in 1926 with the addition of the sarcophagus, the front stairs, and the pathways we recognize today. Initially, the sarcophagus had no fence around it. But around 1938 one is installed. But unlike today, people were allowed to move freely around the tomb and go on the front steps.
For many years the guards were all white men. The first African American to guard the tomb was Fred Moore in 1960 and the first woman wasn’t until 1997 when Heather Johnson takes her post.
By the 1970s the graves of the Kennedy brothers brought record numbers of visitors to the cemetery. The 1926 amphitheater design could only accommodate 200 visitors to watch the changing of the guard. In 1974 the portico and steps of the east side of the amphitheater were expanded so that 800 people could witness this ceremony.
Uniforms, formations, and inspection procedures, and wreath laying rituals have changed over time.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of remembrance. Remembering those who sacrificed not just their lives but their very identities. Remembering that the rights we enjoy today are made possible by the sacrifices of those who came before us. And remembering that there are those amongst us who would take these rights from us unless we are always vigilant.