On this day in history, the body of President John F. Kennedy is moved to a spot just a few feet away from its original interment site at Arlington National Cemetery. The slain president had been assassinated more than three years earlier, on November 22, 1963.
Although JFK never specified where he wanted to be buried, most of his family and friends assumed he would have chosen a plot in his home state of Massachusetts. Because JFK was a World War II veteran, he qualified for a plot at Arlington National Cemetery, but he also deserved a special site befitting his presidential status. The spring before he died, President Kennedy had made an unscheduled tour of Arlington and had remarked to a friend on the view of the Potomac from the Custis-Lee Mansion, reportedly saying it was so magnificent I could stay forever. After the assassination, the friend who accompanied JFK to Arlington that day relayed the comment to the president’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who suggested the site to Jacqueline Kennedy, the president’s widow. Jackie, who was responsible for the final decision, toured the site on November 24 and agreed. “He belongs to the people,” she said.
During funeral preparations, the first lady asked if cemetery workers could erect some sort of eternal flame at the gravesite. Cemetery officials scrambled to put together a makeshift Hawaiian torch under a wire dome, covered by dirt and evergreen boughs. The flame was fed by copper tubing from a propane tank situated 300 feet away. After the graveside military ceremony on November 25, Jackie lit the first eternal flame and, a few days later, the gravesite was enclosed with a white picket fence. In December 1963, Jackie Kennedy returned to the grave and was photographed kneeling in prayer among a sea of wreaths and bouquets left by recent visitors.
JFK’s original gravesite attracted 16 million visitors in the first three years after his death. In 1967, the Kennedy family and Arlington officials chose to move JFK’s grave in order to construct a safer, more stable eternal flame and to accommodate the extensive foot traffic caused by tourists. The final resting place, which is only a few feet from the original site, took 2 years to construct, during which time JFK’s body was secretly moved and re-interred in a private ceremony attended by Jackie, his brothers Edward and Robert, and President Lyndon Johnson. The bodies of two of the couple’s children who died at birth were also moved to the new site from graves in Massachusetts. The makeshift propane gas line was replaced with a permanent natural gas line and furnished with a continuous electronic flashing spark that reignites the flame in case it is extinguished by rain or wind. The Kennedy family chose Cape Cod granite flagstones to surround the flame. They also paid the costs of the original burial, but the federal government funded construction of the final site and appropriates money for the plot’s upkeep.
In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, also a victim of assassination, was buried near his brother. In 1994, Jackie Kennedy died after a battle with cancer and, although she had remarried and again been widowed, was laid to rest next to her first husband, JFK.
William Taft is the only other president besides JFK interred at Arlington.