State funeral of John F. Kennedy
|Date||November 25, 1963|
The state funeral of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, took place in Washington, D.C. during the three days that followed his assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.
The body of President Kennedy was brought back to Washington and placed in the East Room of the White House for 24 hours. On the Sunday after the assassination, his flag-draped coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. Throughout the day and night, hundreds of thousands lined up to view the guarded casket.
Representatives from over 90 countries attended the state funeral on Monday, November 25. After the Requiem Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral, the late president was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Kennedy is the most recent president to have died in office.
Preparations for the state funeral
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, his body was flown back to Washington, and on arrival, it was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy. At the same time, military authorities started planning his state funeral. Army Major General Philip C. Wehle, the commanding general of the Military District of Washington (MDW) (CG MDW), and retired Army Colonel Paul C. Miller, chief of ceremonies and special events at the MDW, planned the funeral.
They headed to the White House and worked with the president's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, also director of the Peace Corps, and Ralph Dungan, an aide to the president. Because Kennedy had no funeral plan in place, much of the planning rested with the CG MDW. House Speaker John W. McCormack said that the president's body would be brought back to the White House to lie in the East Room the following day and then taken to the Capitol to lie in state in the rotunda all day Sunday.
The day after the assassination, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, issued Presidential Proclamation 3561, declaring Monday to be a national day of mourning, and only essential emergency workers to be at their posts. He read the proclamation over a nationwide radio and television broadcast at 4:45 p.m. from the Fish Room at the White House.
Several elements of the state funeral paid tribute to Kennedy's service in the Navy during World War II. They included a member of the Navy bearing the presidential flag, the playing of the Navy Hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," and the Naval Academy Glee Club performing at the White House. The hymn "O God of Loveliness" was played as the casket was brought down the Capitol steps; "The Barren Rocks of Aden" as it was brought to the White House, and "Ave Maria" when it arrived at St. Matthew’s Church.
White House repose
After the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Kennedy's body was prepared for burial by embalmers from Gawler's Funeral Home in Washington, who performed the embalming and cosmetic restoration procedures at Bethesda instead of the funeral home. The body was then put in a coffin made of 500-year old African mahogany, as some of the handles and ornaments on the bronze one that carried the body from Dallas had been damaged en route. The body of President Kennedy was returned to the White House at nearly 4:30 a.m., Saturday, November 23. The motorcade bearing the remains was met at the White House gate by a Marine honor guard, which escorted it to the North Portico.
The pallbearers bore the casket to the East Room where, nearly one hundred years earlier, the body of Abraham Lincoln had lain. Kennedy's casket was placed on a catafalque previously used for the funerals of the Unknown Soldiers from the Korean War and World War II at Arlington. Jacqueline Kennedy declared that the casket would be kept closed for the duration of the viewing and funeral. The shot to Kennedy's head left a gaping wound, and religious leaders said that a closed casket minimized morbid concentration on the corpse.
Mrs. Kennedy, still wearing the blood-stained raspberry-colored suit she wore in Dallas, had not left the side of her husband's body since his death. Only after the casket was placed in the East Room, draped with black crepe, did she retire to her private quarters.
Kennedy's body lay in repose in the East Room for 24 hours, attended by an honor guard that included troops from the 3rd Infantry and from the Army's Special Forces (Green Berets). The Special Forces troops had been brought hurriedly from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the request of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was aware of his brother's particular interest in them.
Mrs. Kennedy requested that two Catholic priests remain with the body until the official funeral. A call was made to The Catholic University of America, and Msgr. Robert Paul Mohan and Fr. Gilbert Hartke, two prominent Washington, D.C. priests, were immediately dispatched for the task. A Mass was said in the East Room at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 23. After the Mass, other family members, friends, and other government officials came at specified times to pay their respects, including former U.S. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The other surviving former U.S. president at the time, Herbert Hoover, was too ill to attend, and was represented by his sons, Herbert Hoover Jr. who also attended the funeral, and Allan Hoover went to the services in the rotunda.
Outside the White House and in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, crowds stood in the rain, keeping a vigil and paying quiet respects. It rained all day in Washington, befitting the mood of the nation.
Lying in state
On Sunday afternoon about 300,000 people watched a horse-drawn caisson, which had borne the body of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Unknown Soldier, carry Kennedy's flag-covered casket down the White House drive, past parallel rows of soldiers bearing the flags of the 50 states of the Union, then along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda to lie in state. The only sounds on Pennsylvania Avenue as the cortège made its way to the Capitol were the sounds of the muffled drums and the clacking of horses' hooves, including the riderless horse Black Jack.
The widow, holding her two children by the hand, led the public mourning for the country. In the rotunda, Mrs. Kennedy and her daughter Caroline knelt beside the casket, which rested on the Lincoln catafalque. Three-year-old John Jr. was briefly taken out of the rotunda so as not to disrupt the service. Mrs. Kennedy maintained her composure as her husband was taken to the Capitol to lie in state, as well as during the memorial service.
Kennedy was the first president in more than 30 years to lie in state in the rotunda, the previous one being the only president to ever serve as chief justice, William Howard Taft, in 1930. He was also the first Democrat to lie in state at the Capitol.
In the only public viewing, hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to view the casket. Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line up to 10 persons wide that stretched 40 blocks, over nearly 10 miles, personally paid their respects as Kennedy's body lay in state. Capitol police officers politely reminded mourners to keep moving along in two lines that passed on either side of the casket and exited the building on the west side facing the National Mall.
The original plan was for the rotunda to close at 9:00 p.m. and reopen for an hour at 9:00 the next morning. Because of long lines however, police and military authorities decided to keep the doors open. At 9:00 p.m., when the rotunda was supposed to close, both Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy returned to the rotunda again. More than half the mourners came to the rotunda after 2:45 a.m., by which time 115,000 had already visited. Military officials doubled the lines, first to two abreast, then to four abreast.
NBC broadcast uninterrupted coverage of the people passing through the Capitol rotunda during the overnight hours. While anchoring the Today show from an NBC Washington studio the next day, Hugh Downs said that the mass numbers made it "the greatest and most solemn wake in history." CBS Washington correspondent Roger Mudd said of the mass numbers: "This outpouring of affection and sympathy for the late president is probably the most majestic and stately ceremony the American people can perform." Jersey Joe Walcott, a former heavyweight boxing champion, passed by the bier at 2:30 a.m. and agreed with Mudd, saying of Kennedy, "He was a great man."
Arrival of dignitaries
As Kennedy lay in state, foreign dignitaries—including heads of state and government and members of royal families—started to arrive in Washington to attend the state funeral on Monday. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other State Department personnel went to both of Washington's commercial airports to personally greet foreign dignitaries.
Some of the dignitaries that arrived on Sunday to attend the funeral included Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, French President Charles de Gaulle, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, The Duke of Edinburgh representing Queen Elizabeth II, British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Irish President Éamon de Valera, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Queen Frederika of Greece, and King Baudouin I of the Belgians were just some of the other members of royalty attending. Some law enforcement officials, including MPDC Chief Robert V. Murray, later said that it was the biggest security nightmare they ever faced.
As people were viewing the casket, military authorities held meetings at the White House, at MDW headquarters, and at Arlington National Cemetery to plan Monday's events. First, they decided that the public viewing should end at 9:00 a.m. EST and that the ceremonies would begin at 10:30 a.m. EST. On Sunday evening the State Department issued its Official Narrative of Events for November 25:
- 'AT THE WHITE HOUSE
- 1. Approximately 50 minutes after leaving from the front of the Rotunda, the Marine element of march, which directly precedes the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Caisson, will have arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue directly opposite of the Northeast gate of the White House. At that point, one platoon of the Marine company will detach itself from the main body and enter the Northeast gate and will be followed by all elements in their rear, i.e., the Joints Chiefs of Staff, the Personal Flag, the Caparisoned Horse and the car bearing Mrs. Kennedy and the Attorney General.
- 2. The column that has entered the White House grounds will proceed on the drive, NOT passing under, but keeping to the right of the portico, until the head of the platoon of Marines reaches the Northwest gate, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue. There it will be halted. Mrs. Kennedy's car will pull under the portico roof and halt at the front steps of the White House, at which point she will dismount with the Attorney General. Upon her leaving the car, it should be backed up 10 or 15 yards.
- 3. It is presumed Mrs. Kennedy will mount the steps with the Attorney General and be met by members of the Presidential staff.
- 4. The entire driveway in the White House grounds will be cordoned by Navy enlisted men, bearing State and Territorial Flags. They will render the appropriate honors upon the passage of the Caisson.
- 5. It is presumed that the Presidential Military Aides will remain in column behind the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If the Aides decide they wish to enter the White House, it is their responsibility to position themselves back in the column prior to Mrs. Kennedy's leaving the White House to follow the Caisson on foot.
- 6. It is assumed that the foreign dignitaries have been formed in the proper column inside of the White House, extending from the East Room down the hall to te North Entrance. When Mrs. Kennedy mounts the steps and has been met by the Presidential staff, she will be told by a member of that staff when the entire group within the White House is ready to move off. Mrs. Kennedy is then free to move down the steps and to the left along the drive towards the Northwest gate on foot.
- 7. On descending to the driveway Mrs. Kennedy will find the Caisson followed by the Caparisoned Horse some 20 - 30 yards to the left and on the driveway. As she approaches the Caisson, the Marine platoon, halted at the Northeast gate, will move the column off so that Mrs. Kennedy will not have to halt behind the Caparisoned Horse. The normal distance for marching behind the Caparison Horse is approximately 10 to 15 yards. The dignitaries, already formed at the White House, will move out immediately behind Mrs. Kennedy. It is presumed that Mrs. Kennedy will be escorted by her brother-in-law, the Attorney General. It is further presumed that the other mourners and dignitaries on foot will keep about a five (5) yard distance in rear of Mrs. Kennedy and her escort.
- 8. The mourners behind Mrs. Kennedy and her escort should maintain a five or six man front.
- 9. As the Marine Platoon moves out of the Northwest gate the Black Watch will move in following the Marine Platoon and immediately in front of the Joints Chiefs of Staff.
- 10. The Naval Academy Choir, positioned on the lawn opposite the North portico, will begin to sing as the Caisson enters the Northeast gate. They will sing three hymns only.
Unlike Sunday's procession, which was led by only the muffled drum corps, Monday's was expanded to include other military units. Military officials also agreed to requests from Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. They agreed that the Marine Band should lead the funeral procession, which would include two foreign military units—pipers from the Scottish Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) marching from the White House to St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, a group of 26 Irish Defence Forces cadets—at the request of Mrs. Kennedy—performing silent drill at the grave site, and placement of an eternal flame at the grave. The cadets came from the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. The cadets traveled with Irish President Éamon de Valera, and together they paid tribute to Kennedy's Irish ancestry.
Approximately one million people lined the route of the funeral procession, from the Capitol back to the White House, then to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and finally to Arlington National Cemetery. Millions more—almost the entire population of America—followed the funeral on television. Those who watched the funeral on television were the only ones who saw the ceremony in its entirety. The three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, used at least 50 cameras for the joint coverage in order to allow viewers to follow the proceedings in their entirety from the Capitol to Arlington. In addition, the networks' Washington bureau chiefs (Bob Fleming at ABC, Bill Monroe at NBC, and Bill Small at CBS) moved correspondents and cameras to keep them ahead of the cortège.
The day's events began at 8:25 a.m., when the MPDC cut off the line of mourners waiting to get into the rotunda. They did so because a large group tried to break into the line and the MPDC were not able to sort out those who had already been in line, many of whom had waited for five hours. Thirty-five minutes, later, the doors closed, ending the lying in state; the last visitors passed through at 9:05 a.m.
At 10:00 a.m., both houses of Congress met to pass resolutions expressing sorrow. In the Senate, Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith laid a single rose on the desk Kennedy had occupied when in the Senate.
Earlier that morning the State Department also issued the following directive:
- Funeral Services of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, late President of the United States - 25 November 1963
- Procession departs the Capitol at 11:00am
- Mrs. Kennedy and the Attorney General in an automobile will join the military formation to proceed to the White House.
- Members of Congress who will participate in the funeral ceremonies (except "The Leadership") proceed directly to St. Matthews Cathedral to be seated by 11:45am.
- The military formation will proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House and pause in the intersection of 17th and Pennsylvania. In the meantime, the caisson will have entered the North Gate and proceed to the North Portico followed by Mrs. Kennedy and the Attorney General. They will leave the automobile at this point and be joined by other dignitaries who will proceed with them on foot behind the caisson. The caisson will move forth and the procession will proceed to St. Matthew's via Connecticut Avenue.
- The following will assemble at the White House at 11:15am preparatory to joining Mrs. Kennedy and Family on the walk from the White House to the Cathedral:
- The President
- Chiefs of State
- Heads of Government and Chiefs of Special Delegations.
- The Chief Justice
- Former Presidents
- Justices of the Supreme Court
- Members of the Cabinet
- Congressional Leadership
- The Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Personal Assistants to President Kennedy
- Close friends
- Those that are not in the procession but who have been invited to attend the requiem Mass at the Cathedral should proceed directly to the Cathedral and be in their place at approximately 11:45am.
- Upon the conclusion of the ceremonies at the Cathedral, those attending the Mass enter their cars and join the procession from the Cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery in the following order of precedence:
- Mrs. Kennedy and Members of the immediate family
- The President and his Party
- Chiefs of State, Heads of Government and Chiefs of Special Delegations.
- The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court
- Members of the Cabinet
- Leadership of the Senate
- Governors of the States and Territories
- Leadership of the House of Representatives
- Joints Chiefs of Staff
- Personal Staff of President Kennedy
- Close Friends of the Family
- Others attending the funeral mass are invited to Arlington Cemetery
- The procession upon arrival at the site of internment will halt and passengers will leave their automobiles and proceed to the grave site. After the internment ceremonies, those participating will return to their cars and return to the city. 
Procession to cathedral
After Jacqueline Kennedy and her brothers-in-law, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, visited the rotunda, the coffin was carried out onto the caisson. At 10:50, the caisson left the Capitol. Ten minutes later, the procession began, making its way back to the White House. As the procession reached the White House, all the military units except for the Marine company turned right off Pennsylvania Avenue and onto 17th Street. A platoon of the Marine company turned in the northeast gate and led the cortege into the North Portico.
At the White House, the procession resumed on foot to St. Matthew's Cathedral, led by Jacqueline Kennedy and the late president's brothers, Robert and Edward (Ted) Kennedy. They walked the same route that John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy often used when going to Mass at the cathedral. This also marked the first time that a first lady walked in her husband's funeral procession. The two Kennedy children rode in a limousine behind their mother and uncles. The rest of the Kennedy family, apart from the president's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who was ill, waited at the cathedral.
The new president Lyndon B. Johnson, his wife Lady Bird, and their two daughters Luci and Lynda also marched in the procession. Johnson had been advised not to do so because of the potential risk in the wake of Kennedy's assassination. Johnson recounted his experiences in his memoirs, saying, "I remember marching behind the caisson to St. Matthew's Cathedral. The muffled rumble of drums set up a heartbreaking echo."
Merle Miller quoted him as having said, "Walking in the procession was especially one of the most difficult decisions I had to make," but it was something he "could do, should do, would do, and did so." When he moved into the Oval Office the next day, there was a letter from Mrs. Kennedy on his desk in which she thanked him for marching in the procession.
Not since the funeral of Britain's King Edward VII, in 1910, had there been such a large gathering of presidents, prime ministers, and royalty at a state funeral. In all, 220 foreign dignitaries, including 19 heads of state and government, and members of royal families from 92 countries, five international agencies, and the papacy attended the funeral. Most of the dignitaries passed unnoticed, following respectfully behind the former first lady and the Kennedy family during the relatively short walk to the cathedral along Connecticut Avenue.
As the dignitaries marched, there was a heavy security presence because of concerns for the potential assassination of so many world leaders, the greatest being for French President Charles de Gaulle. Under Secretary of State George Ball manned the operations center at the State Department with the goal of ensuring that no incident occurred.
NBC transmitted coverage of the procession from the White House to the cathedral by satellite to twenty-three countries, including Japan and the Soviet Union, allowing hundreds of millions on both sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe to watch the funeral. Satellite coverage ended when the coffin went into the cathedral. In the Soviet Union, their commentators said that "the grief of the Soviet people mingles with the grief of the American people." There was no coverage in East Germany, where television audiences had only a soccer match to watch.
The widow, wearing a black veil, led the way up the steps of the cathedral holding the hands of her two children, with John Jr., whose third birthday fell on the day of his father's funeral, on her left, and Caroline on her right. Because of the funeral and the day of mourning, the widow postponed John Jr.'s birthday party until December 5, the last day the family was in the White House.
Funeral Mass at cathedral
About 1,200 invited guests attended the funeral Mass in the cathedral. The Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, celebrated the Pontifical Requiem Low Mass at the cathedral where Kennedy, a practicing Catholic, often worshipped. Cardinal Cushing was a close friend of the family who had witnessed and blessed the marriage of Senator Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. He had also baptized two of their children, given the invocation at President Kennedy's inauguration, and officiated at the recent funeral of their infant son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
At the request of the First Lady, the Requiem Mass was a Low Mass—that is, a simplified version of the Mass, with the Mass recited or spoken and not sung. Two months later, Cardinal Cushing offered a pontifical Solemn High Requiem Mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston, with the city's orchestra and choir singing Mozart's Requiem setting.
There was no formal eulogy at the Low Requiem Mass. (The first presidential funeral to feature a formal eulogy was that of L.B.J. in 1973.) However, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, decided to read selections from Kennedy's writings and speeches. The readings included a passage from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: "There is an appointed time for everything...a time to be born and a time to die...a time to love and a time to hate...a time of war and a time of peace." He then concluded his remarks by reading Kennedy's entire Inaugural Address.
Jacqueline Kennedy requested that Luigi Vena sing Georges Bizet's "Agnus Dei", as he had at her wedding to John F. Kennedy ten years prior. Instead, he was told to sing Pie Jesu and Franz Schubert's Ave Maria after the offertory. For a few moments, she lost her composure and sobbed as this music filled the cathedral.
The casket was borne again by caisson on the final leg to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. Moments after the casket was carried down the front steps of the cathedral, Jacqueline Kennedy whispered to her son, after which he saluted his father's coffin; the image, taken by photographer Stan Stearns, became an iconic representation of the 1960s. The children were deemed to be too young to attend the final burial service, so this was the point where the children said goodbye to their father.
Virtually everyone else followed the caisson in a long line of black limousines passing by the Lincoln Memorial and crossing the Potomac River. Many of the military units did not participate in the burial service and left just after crossing the Potomac. Because the line of cars taking the foreign dignitaries was long, the last cars carrying the dignitaries left St. Matthew's as the procession entered the cemetery. The burial services had already begun when the last car arrived. Security guards walked beside the cars carrying the dignitaries, with the one carrying the French president having the most—10.
At the end of the burial services, the widow lit an eternal flame to burn continuously over his grave. At 3:34 p.m. EST, the casket containing his remains was lowered into the earth as "Kennedy slipped out of mortal sight—out of sight but not out of heart and mind." Kennedy thus became only the second president to be buried at Arlington, after William Howard Taft, which meant that, at that time, the two most recent presidents to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda were buried at Arlington. Kennedy was buried at Arlington exactly two weeks to the day he last visited there, when he came for Veterans Day observances.
Body bearers carrying the casket of President Kennedy up the center steps of the United States Capitol Building, followed by a color guard holding the flag of the President of the United States, and the late President's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., on November 24, 1963.
Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy about to enter a limousine on November 24, 1963.
Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by her brothers-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy, walking from the White House as part of the funeral procession accompanying President Kennedy's casket to Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C. on November 25, 1963.
Jacqueline Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy walk away from President Kennedy's casket during interment at Arlington National Cemetery on November 25, 1963.
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- BBC coverage of the funeral. Commentary by Richard Dimbleby
- Chief Justice Earl Warren's Eulogy for John F. Kennedy