Solemn rituals carry on with new precautions at Arlington National Cemetery


WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) - For nearly 50 years, Memorial Day has been set aside to honor the men and women who lost their lives serving the country.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, honoring the nation’s fallen heroes looks a little different.

The flag that covers the casket is no longer handed to the next of kin. Instead, it’s gently laid on a table next to the grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Solemn funeral honors were adjusted in the age of coronavirus to pay tribute to decorated World War II Veteran Robert Belch. Everyone wears masks, even the rifle platoon.

Capt. Doug Rohde, who has been back from Iraq for just eight months, performs ceremonial duties for the Army’s Old Guard unit.

“It means a lot to me that we can still be there for the families even though, you know, we’re dealing with a lot as a country right now,” Rohde said.

The new reality: Only 10 family or friends are allowed graveside. As few troops as possible perform funeral honors. Distance is kept, and masks are worn.

Still, every funeral is conducted with the same dignity and respect, even with the changes. Even on Memorial Day, Arlington is open only to families of those buried here.

“Since COVID-19 has started, we have gone from conducting 40 missions as a platoon a week to zero,” said Spc. Joseph Gorgas, who is part of the Army’s elite Caisson Platoon, the unit that carries those killed on the battlefield, veterans and presidents.

The horses that pull the caissons still are on duty, but with extra troops required to do it right, the caissons are not being used to limit the number of people interacting.

Up the hill at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, troops wear masks as they get ready for their razor-sharp walk.

Visitors are no longer allowed, but there is no easing of tradition.

“Since 1937 on July 2 at midnight, there has always been somebody guarding the tomb, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Army Sgt. Jacob Hammond said.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they had lives right? So the very least we could do is to continue our mission to the best of our abilities,” Army Sgt. First Class Chelsea Porterfield said.

Across Arlington on Memorial Day, troops are determined to carry on.

“There have been a few funerals that we have done in the last couple months where no family has been able to attend due to the virus, and our heart goes out to them. We’re very happy that we could at least be there for them as they are laid to rest,” Rohde said.

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