President John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite

John F. Kennedy grave and eternal flame
The Eternal Flame over the grave of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy made his first formal visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1961, to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the conclusion of the ceremony President Kennedy spoke to more than 5,000 people gathered in the Memorial Amphitheater.

President Kennedy's address began; "We meet in quiet commemoration of a historic day of peace. In an age that threatens the survival of freedom, we join together to honor those who made our freedom possible. ... It is a tragic fact, that war still more destructive and still sanguinary followed [World War II]; that man's capacity to devise new ways of killing his fellow men have far outstripped his capacity to live in peace with his fellow man."

Eleven days prior to Kennedy's assassination he returned to Arlington for the 1963 Armistice Day services. This time he did not address the crowd in the amphitheater.

On Nov. 22, 1963, while on a campaign trip to Dallas, President Kennedy was shot and killed.

There are only two U.S. presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The other is William Howard Taft, who died in 1930.

Though Kennedy is buried at Arlington, at the time of his death, many believed that he would be buried in Brookline, Mass. Woodrow Wilson was the only other president besides Taft who had been buried outside of his native state and in the National Capital Region. President Wilson is buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press on Nov. 22, 1963, prematurely announced, "President Kennedy's body will lie in state at the White House tomorrow. ... There's nothing definite yet on the funeral, but it's understood it will be in Boston."

The New York Times announced later that day, "The president was expected to be buried at the Kennedy family plot in Holyhood Cemetery, near Brookline, Mass. He is a native of Boston."

Kennedy's brother-in-law and director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, arrived at the White House to make tentative arrangements for Kennedy's funeral. However, nothing was definite until the wishes of Jacqueline Kennedy, the president's widow, were known. Her wishes were stated simply, "He belongs to the people."

Shriver prepared for all possibilities and had even contacted the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. The superintendent informed Shriver that ample space was available in Arlington and that the cemetery would be ready to handle the funeral.

The first formal statement from Mrs. Kennedy concerning the burial was to model her husband's funeral after ceremonies rendered for Abraham Lincoln.

The research on President Lincoln's funeral was done by Professor James Robertson, the executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. He contacted David Mearns, the director of the Library of Congress. The two men went to the government repository where the lights were inoperative because they were connected to a timer switch and would only operate during the time the Library was scheduled to be opened. Using flashlights they found copies of Frank Leslie's Illustrated and Harper's Weekly which depicted the 1865 funeral in graphic detail. Using this information, the East Room of the White House was transformed to fit the description of the funeral almost a century earlier.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara felt that President Kennedy should be interred on federal property so that his grave would be accessible to the American people. McNamara contacted the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery and wished to see potential burial plots for the president at ANC. Three plots were shown: one near the mast of the USS Maine, one at Dewey Circle, and the third on the slope below Arlington House (Custis-Lee mansion). The president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, found the "Maine" location inappropriate and the "Dewey" location inaccessible; however, he believed that the slope below Arlington House was ideal. The final decision was Mrs. Kennedy's. After arriving and viewing the gravesite below Arlington House, she nodded her approval.

McNamara and Robert F. Kennedy returned to Arlington to supervise the surveying of the area. The two men walked up the hill to Arlington House. While they were there, Park Service employee Paul Fugua recounted how on March 3 President Kennedy and Charlie Bartlett had made an impromptu Sunday visit to the Custis-Lee mansion. He went on to recall that after touring the house the president remarked that the view of Washington, D.C., was so magnificent that he could stay forever — a statement which seemed to confirm their selection of the grave site.

Mrs. Kennedy had expressed a desire to mark the president's grave with an eternal flame similar to that of the French Unknown Soldier in Paris. The Washington Gas Company was contacted and a propane-fed torch was selected, as it could be safely lit during the funeral the following day.

On Nov. 25, 1963, at 3 p.m., the state funeral of President Kennedy began. Earlier that day cemetery employees at Arlington, along with personnel from the Military District of Washington, conducted 23 funerals. All were conducted with appropriate dignity and military honors.

Among the mourners at Kennedy's grave site were President Charles de Gaulle of France, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard of the Federal Republic of Germany, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Prince Philip of the United Kingdom. Overhead, 50 Navy and Air Force jets flew past the gravesite followed by the president's plane, Air Force One, which dipped its wing in final tribute.

A contingent of the Irish Guard stood opposite the grave, and the Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, performed a Roman Catholic committal service. The body bearers folded the interment flag, and the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery presented it to Mrs. Kennedy. She and Robert Kennedy then used a torch to light the eternal flame.

On Dec. 4, 1963, the two deceased Kennedy children were reburied in Arlington, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy from Brookline — who had predeceased JFK by 15 weeks — and an unnamed stillborn daughter from Newport, R.I.

The initial plot was 20 feet by 30 feet and was surrounded by a white picket fence. During the first year often more than 3,000 people an hour visited the Kennedy gravesite, and on weekends an estimated 50,000 people visited. Three years after Kennedy's death, more than 16 million people had come to visit the Kennedy plot.

Because of the large crowds, cemetery officials and members of the Kennedy family decided that a more suitable site should be constructed. The architectural firm of John Warnecke and Associates was tasked to design and build the grave area. Construction began in 1965 and was completed July 20, 1967. During the period of construction, President Kennedy and his two deceased children were quietly reinterred to the permanent grave, and Archbishop Cushing formally blessed the new site in a private service, which was attended by Mrs. Kennedy, Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson.

The grave area is paved with irregular stones of Cape Cod granite, which were quarried around 1817 near the site of the president's home and selected by members of his family. Clover, and later, sedum were planted in the crevices to give the appearance of stones lying naturally in a Massachusetts field.

Lighted by Mrs. Kennedy during the funeral, the Eternal Flame burns from the center of a five-foot circular flat-granite stone at the head of the grave. The burner is a specially designed apparatus created by the Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago. A constantly flashing electric spark near the tip of the nozzle relights the gas should the flame be extinguished by rain, wind or accident. The fuel is natural gas and is mixed with a controlled quantity of air to achieve the color and shape of the flame.

The entire site, a total of 3.2 acres, was set aside by the secretary of the Army, with the approval of the secretary of defense, to honor the memory of the president. The land has been retained for the nation as a whole and has not been deeded to the Kennedy family. The steep hillside has never been considered suitable for graves or a general burial location.

The Kennedy family paid actual costs in the immediate grave area. The government was responsible for the improvements in the surrounding area that provided for the accommodation of the visiting public. Funds in the amount of $1,770,000 were included for this purpose in Fiscal Year 1965's Public Works Appropriation.

In addition, $71,026 went to Ammann and Whitney, Structural Engineers, New York, N.Y. The Aberthaw Construction Company, Boston, Mass., carried out the work under the supervision of the U.S. Army District Engineering, Norfolk, Va.

On May 23, 1994, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was buried next to President Kennedy. The gravesite was completed with addition of her grave marker Oct. 6, 1994.

View Biography of John F. Kennedy.

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