Grave of a President: JFK’s Eternal Flame
A Light in the Darkness
Visiting President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery has been a sobering experience for the millions who have filed past it since his murder in 1963. The tragedy and shock of his death certainly contributes to the somber mood of the memorial, but a unique feature that has intrigued its visitors is the eternal flame that First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy lit at her husband’s funeral.
The eternal flame was not a feature used by any previous president’s resting site, nor was it a particularly American tradition. Jackie Kennedy had visited the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with her husband a few years earlier and seen an eternal flame over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and when President Kennedy died unexpectedly, she apparently drew inspiration from that historical landmark.
Courage Under Fire
Within three days of his death, President Kennedy’s family buried him at Arlington National Cemetery. While the funeral service was executed flawlessly, befitting not just Kennedy’s status as a president but also a war veteran and Catholic, it belied the hurried nature that took place behind the scenes as the Kennedy family and the government tried to decide the appropriate actions for laying a sitting president to rest on such short notice.
Initially, Kennedy’s immediate family believed he should be buried at a plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was already interred. However, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, suggested the president be buried at Arlington, and Jackie Kennedy quickly approved the change, realizing that his historic significance would be reinforced by laying him to rest in the famous cemetery.
When the grieving First Lady requested an eternal flame be lit at her husband’s resting spot, the US Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with building one overnight. The Corps accomplished this by connecting a propane gas-fueled tiki torch to a propane tank nearby to keep it lit. At the conclusion of John F. Kennedy’s burial, his widow lit the eternal flame.
Designed For the Ages
Shortly after President Kennedy’s burial, his family chose to move his grave to a permanent location within 40 feet of the original burial site. This process would take several years and a lot of research into how previous presidents and historical figures were honored, and also the re-interment of other Kennedy family members and repositioning of the eternal flame.
Eventually architect John Carl Warnecke came up with a design that included the addition of President Kennedy’s stillborn daughter, Arabella, and infant son Patrick’s graves being moved next to their father’s (as noted above, Patrick had previously been laid to rest in Massachusetts and Arabella had been at a cemetery in Rhode Island). The eternal flame was positioned above the three graves.
The eternal flame was extinguished and quickly re-lit a few times, but it remains the distinguishing feature of Arlington’s Kennedy gravesite. After Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s burial there in 1994, the gravesite was altered into its current form. Despite the many additions and changes to the site, the eternal flame has stood the test of time.