A resting place near his brothers
ARLINGTON, Va. - Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s long journey will come to an end here, on a grassy slope shaded by large maple and oak trees, just a short stroll from the graves of his beloved brothers.
Saturday afternoon, Kennedy will take his place in the pantheon of warriors and statesmen who have been laid to rest in the “nation’s most sacred shrine,’’ Arlington National Cemetery.
The idyllic landscape, hand-picked by the Kennedy family, is down the path from the simple white cross and small rectangular stone that marks the resting place of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and near the same spot overlooking Washington where an eternal flame surrounded by Cape Cod field stones burns at the graveside of President John F. Kennedy.
“The nation’s resting place for its heroes, Senator Kennedy spent more days than most at Arlington visiting the graves of his beloved brothers and paying tribute to the fallen men and women of Massachusetts who gave their lives for our country,’’ Kennedy’s office said yesterday in announcing his funeral arrangements.
As groundskeepers began preparing the site yesterday, vacationing families held impromptu history lessons on the Kennedy legacy, tourists voiced their feelings of loss, and tour groups paused to reminisce about their most cherished memories of America’s political dynasty.
“The first thing that hit me when I turned on the television in my hotel room this morning was that he was the last of the brothers. It’s the end of an era,’’ said Cleatus Dunn, 77, of Roseville, Mich., as he stood over the grave of the former president, buried alongside his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and a son and a daughter who died in infancy.
Arlington, with its signature rows of meticulously arrayed gravestones - more than 250,000 of them - became a national military cemetery when the land, an estate originally owned by a stepson of George Washington, was seized from Confederate General Robert E. Lee after the Civil War.
With vistas of some of Washington’s most famous landmarks just across the Potomac River - the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the US Capitol where Kennedy spent 47 years in the Senate - it is the final resting place of soldiers, astronauts, Supreme Court justices, explorers, and their family members.
Kennedy’s service in the Senate makes him eligible for burial here, as well as his service in the US Army from 1951 to 1953, like his two brothers, who served in the Navy. The oldest Kennedy brother, Joseph, was killed while flying a combat mission in World War II, and his body was never recovered.
The cemetery is one of the most poplar national landmarks, with nearly 4 million visitors each year, according to its official website.
And for many who came yesterday, the news of Kennedy’s death made their visit particularly poignant - and made them linger a bit longer at the sacred spot at the bottom of a hill, under an American flag flying at half-staff out in front of the old Lee mansion above.
Army Staff Sergeant Sean Clark, 25, and his wife Shawnie, 25, of Los Angeles, were driving through Ohio to their new posting in Florida when they heard the news on the radio and decided to stop. Clark, whose younger brother Ryan was killed in Iraq in 2006, said he felt an appreciation for the tragedy that Kennedy endured, including losing all three of his brothers early in life, and marveled at how he never gave up.
“My younger brother was killed in Iraq so I know where he was coming from,’’ said Clark. “There’s a lot to be said about a guy who held onto his seat for 47 years. And he had a lot of respect from both sides. That means a lot.’’
Michelle Sanders, 50, and her husband Daniel, 47, of Delmar, N.Y., used their visit to teach their three children, ages 11 to 15, about the last Kennedy brother. She told them he was instrumental in passing laws to protect women and give 18-year-olds the right to vote.
“It’s sad because this is another thing that’s gone, the Kennedy era,’’ Michelle Sanders said. “That is now history. It is a part of my history that won’t be theirs.’’
Michael Maloney, 19, and his sister Katie, 23, of Medford, on a visit to the nation’s capital, came to Arlington after their mother called with the news while they were waiting for a tour bus outside the National Portrait Gallery.
“It’s corny,’’ said Michael, when asked what he thought about the Massachusetts senator, “but you think of America.’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.