WASHINGTON (CNN) — As the nation observes Memorial Day in the midst of a global pandemic, the hallowed grounds at Arlington National Cemetery are also adapting to the situation.
Masks, social distancing and other safety precautions have all become a part of the solemn rituals and pageantry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the near daily funerals that still take place in the cemetery.
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.
At a recent funeral for decorated World War II veteran Command Sgt. Major Robert Belch, members of the Army’s Third Infantry Regiment, the unit known as the “Old Guard” that carries out funerals at Arlington, remained masked the entire time.
The flag that covered Belch’s casket was not handed to the next of kin, but was gently laid on a table next to the grave to avoid physical contact, as is the case for all other funerals in the current environment.
Even the ceremonial rifle platoon on hand to fire off their salute at the end of the service wore masks while the entire funeral party stayed physically separated from one another.
Capt. Doug Rohde, who returned from a deployment to Iraq last October, is now the commander of Bravo company with the Old Guard. His unit still trains for and works to ensure it delivers the same dignity and respect at every funeral despite the changes.
“It means a lot to me that we can still be there for the families even though, you know, we are dealing with a lot as a country right now and we are able to stay constant and maintain, you know, the level of professionalism and be there for those families as they lay their loved ones to rest,” he said.
On some occasions, Rohde’s unit even carries out funerals alone because the family of the fallen was unable to travel to Arlington due to safety concerns.