Saturday November 25, 1963
This was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s third birthday and the day began with his sister Caroline and nanny Maude Shaw singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
At 10:50 a.m. The Kennedy family assembled at the Capitol to be with John F. Kennedy on his final journey. The servicemen from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard worried. The coffin was especially heavy and downhill is difficult. They practiced all night.As the President’s body was borne down the steps the band played a slow version of “Hail to the Chief” and “the Navy Hymn.”
The cortege carried President Kennedy to the White House, where President and Mrs. Johnson, more family members, friends, Congressional leaders, Joint Chiefs and world diplomats and heads of state had assembled to escort the slain Kennedy to St. Matthews Cathedral for his funeral Mass. The mourners were to walk behind the cortege.
The entire trip, from Capitol to White House, to St. Matthews Cathedral to Arlington would be six miles. An estimated one million people lined the route.
Above is one of the images indelibly impressed on the collective memory, the mourners walking the eight blocks from the White House to St. Matthews Cathedral. If the Kennedy family was as close as America gets to royalty, then indeed Jackie Kennedy presented a regal appearance. Her face etched in pain visible even behind the veil, her demeanor never waivered and her step never faltered.
Among the world leaders in attendance were Britain’s Prince Philip and Prime Minister Douglas-Home, France’s President Charles de Gaulle, Greece’s Queen Frederika, Japan’s Crown Prince Akihito, Belgium’s King Baudouin, Russia’s Deputy Premier Mikoyan, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, Ireland’s President De Valera, Canada’s Prime Minister Pearson, Germany’s Chancellor Erhard, and the Philippine’s President Macapagal.
Martin Luther King, who would fall to an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968 was in attendance.
Over 90 national flags would go to half-staff in their native countries. The Panama Canal would briefly close. Athens policeman stopped traffic.
This pageantry was a security nightmare. 4,000 armed men protected the route. It is a miracle that no incident occurred.
Luigi Verna of Boston sang Ave Maria as he had at their wedding.
Philip Hannan, Auxillary Bishop of Washington, at the Kennedy’s family request read Bible passages they had chosen and excerpts from the Inaugural Address.
But the most poignant moment was yet to come. On the steps outside St. Matthews Cathedral, we saw Jackie Kennedy lean over and whisper to young John-John.
Smart and crisp, John F. Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s departing coffin.
The drive to Arlington took over an hour. The long line of limousines moved slowly behind the cortege.
The choice of Arlington as John F. Kennedy’s last resting place did not come easily. Brookline Massachusetts was considered seriously.Yet a national cemetery seemed appropriate for a national leader and former Navy man, even though only one other President, William Howard Taft (1930) had been buried there.
The spot was just below the Custis-Lee mansion, renamed Arlington House in 1972.
A contingent of the Irish Guard stood opposite the grave, Richard Cardinal Cushing performed a Roman Catholic committal service, the 21 gun salute sounded, Taps was played.
Then Jackie Kennedy lit the eternal flame which burns yet today. She handed the taper to Robert and Edward Kennedy in turn so they might participate in the lighting as well.
The flame at the memorial to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triompe in Paris had been Mrs. Kennedy’s inspiration for this.
Later that night Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy returned quietly to Arlington to pay their respects.
Mrs. Kennedy returned again to Arlington on November 28, 1963. The service hats upon the gravesite first appeared the night of the funeral when a green beret was placed there by a Special Forces soldier.