President John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite

The gravesite of President John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy made his first formal visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, November 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.

Eleven days prior to Kennedy's assassination, he returned to Arlington for the 1963 Veterans Day services. This time, he did not address the crowd in the amphitheater. On November 22, 1963, while on a campaign trip to Dallas, President Kennedy was shot and killed.

Kennedy is one of only two presidents buried at Arlington. The other is William Howard Taft, who died in 1930. At the time of Kennedy's death, many believed that he would be buried in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised. Besides Taft, Woodrow Wilson was the only other president 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.)

During his visit to Arlington National Cemetery in 1963, President Kennedy had stood on the sloping hillside in front of Arlington House, which offers views of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol. "I could stay here forever," he told a park ranger. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wanted her husband's gravesite to be accessible to the American public, and in selecting a location, she consulted with the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (both of whom are also buried at Arlington). The chosen plot, on the hillside below Arlington House, is near where Kennedy had said he could stay "forever."   

At 3 p.m. on November 25, 1963, the state funeral of President Kennedy began. Mourners included 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. Fifty Navy and Air Force jets flew overhead, followed by Air Force One, which dipped its wing in a final tribute. Millions of people watched live coverage of the funeral on television, leading to an unprecedented increase in demand for burials at Arlington National Cemetery. 

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

Because of the large crowds, cemetery officials and members of the Kennedy family decided that a more suitable site should be constructed. Construction began in 1965 and was completed on July 20, 1967. Lit by Mrs. Kennedy during the funeral, an eternal flame burns from the center of a five-foot circular granite stone at the head of the grave.

Visitors take photographs of the eternal flame at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy

The Kennedy family paid actual costs in the immediate grave area, while the federal government funded improvements in the surrounding area that accommodated the visitng public. The 1965 Public Works appropriation included $1,770,000 for this purpose.

Other Kennedy family members are buried nearby. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 6, 1968, was interred at Arlington in 1971. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was laid to rest next to President Kennedy on May 23, 1994. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was buried in an adjacent plot after his death in August 2009.