After standing in a line that often stretched for more than two miles, and suffering through 38-degree weather, a quarter of a million mourners visited the Rotunda to show their respects. An outpouring of national grief never before witnessed. Kennedy’s mother, Rose, her son, Senator Edward Kennedy, astronaut John Glenn, his wife, and Ireland’s President Eamon De Valera were among them. Jackie Kennedy made a second visit and again kissed the flag.
During this national day of mourning, churches, across the nation and all over the world, timed memorial services to coincide with the funeral and burial. Betty and I remained in front of the TV mesmerized by the pageantry.
Our tears freely flowed when John-John, on the day of his third birthday, saluted when his father’s casket was placed on the caisson. Escorted by her daughter, a pale Caroline, and the President’s surviving brothers, Robert and Edward, the black-veiled Jackie, who directed every funeral detail, bore her grief as majestically as a queen. Lining the procession route to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, a million spectators listened as the Marine Corps Band, resplendent in scarlet tunics, played Chopin’s Funeral March. With six-blocks remaining, Mrs. Kennedy left the comfort of her limousine and walked the now narrow 10-lane Avenue of the Presidents to the Cathedral, following the six grey horses in their slow gait.
The Catholic hierarchy had desired a High Requiem Mass, but with the support, of their close friend Richard Cardinal Cushing, the Kennedy family chose a Low Pontifical Requiem Mass, which is said rather than sung. This type of service was most often attended by the late President. Witnessed by 1,900 invited guests, including delegations from 53-countries headed by 26-heads of state—the greatest outpouring of diplomatic mourning in the nation’s history, among whom were Prince Phillip of England and Anastas Mikonav, first deputy premier of the Soviet Union. By contrast, Lee Harvey Oswald was secretly interred three hours later in a pine coffin with only his mother and Russian wife in attendance.
Cardinal Cushing, who had said a prayer at Kennedy’s inauguration, offered the Mass without a deacon, but had two priests serving as altar boys. With the recent advent of television, this Requiem Mass received more attention than any other event. At Mrs. Kennedy’s request, Luligi Vena sang “Ave Maria.”
The procession to the grave site at Arlington was a memorable as any I’ve ever witnessed. Tens of thousands lined the hillsides within the cemetery, some had arrived as early as 3 a.m. The muffled rumble of drums, four ruffles, and flourishes preceded the National Anthem. The tentative sound of a piper was followed by the Air Force bagpipe band, clad in green and black tartans, parading in dirge step.
The strains of an ancient air, “The Mist Covers the Mountains” accompanied Kennedy’s remains, which were tenderly borne by the eight servicemen who carried it to each of the resting places. At the precise moment the casket was placed over the grave, 50-Air Force and Navy jet warplanes flew overhead, next came Air Force One. As though responding to the ceremony, thousands of leaves from a giant oak slowly made their descent earthward. A squad of cadets from the Irish National Military College conducted a ceremonial presentation of arms before the American flag which had draped the casket was folded in the military tradition and presented to Mrs. Kennedy, who pressed it to her heart.
Followed by Bobby and Teddy Kennedy, Jackie bore a lighted taper to the top of the grave and ignited the eternal flame. Jackie’s emotions were kept under control until she tearfully embraced General Maxwell Taylor.
All this will not be finished in the first hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days,
nor in the life of this administration,
not even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, at his Inauguration,
January 20, 1961