The crack in the stone at Arlington

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2003

As became sadly evident Memorial Day, the Tomb of the Unknowns is cracked beyond repair. Plans are already under way to replace with it with an exact copy, hewn from the same Colorado marble quarry as the original.

The new tomb, to be installed next year, will have the same inscription, &uot;Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God,&uot; and the same relief carvings of figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor. Even the imperfections will be identical.

The 71-year-old tombstone holds a special place in Arlington National Cemetery and the American heart. The remains of unknowns from World War I, World War II and Korea are buried there. There is no Vietnam unknown because those remains were identified and reburied. Because of DNA, there may never be another unknown, which makes the tomb that much more poignant.

Because it is so special, the tomb is guarded around-the-clock, year-round with metronomic precision by sentinels from the Army’s Old Guard, and the changing of that guard is one of the capital’s most somber and inspiring rituals.

The question arises then: What should become of the old tomb? Destroying it is out of the question, and it would be a crime to warehouse the 55-ton stone out of sight somewhere. There is precedent for preserving and displaying an honored but irreparably damaged artifact of American history - the Liberty Bell.

There are places in the capital where the tomb could be displayed and preserved - the National Arboretum (where pillars from the original U.S. Capitol have been re-erected), the Mall, the Smithsonian, even elsewhere in Arlington. The old tombstone deserves a dignified and honored retirement.