50 years on, a still-burning flame

President John F. Kennedy's gravesite is a popular draw at Arlington National Cemetery.

There are so many things one can do on a summer vacation: head to the lake, a cabin, the beach, a ballpark, a big city, swimming, hiking and biking all come to mind.

Generally speaking, visiting a cemetery or a gravesite would not be on that list. What's to enjoy about a cemetery visit? A grave?

Come on.

There are exceptions, of course, because a visit to Washington, D.C., should include Arlington National Cemetery.

We found that out last summer on a weeklong trip to our nation's capital. You try to fit in a lot of sight-seeing in a short period of time and, as it turned out, one of our first destinations was Arlington.



Did you know that Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Virginia, contains the remains of more than 300,000 people from the United States and 11 other countries? Some have been buried there since the 1860s.

Other facts:

• More than 4 million visit the cemetery annually.

• Arlington averages about 5,000 funerals per year.

• The cemetery has the second-largest number of people buried of any national cemetery in the United States, behind only U.S. Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island.

• Arlington averages 28 funerals, including interments and inurnments, a day. Funerals are normally conducted five days a week, excluding weekends.

• Based on its burial rate, the cemetery is expected to reach capacity by 2020, after which time it will operate as a national shrine.


• Nearly 5,000 unknown soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery..

• The Tomb of the Unknown Solider is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days per year by volunteer members of 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), in full dress uniform carrying M-14 rifles.

• Among those buried at Arlington are Abner Doubleday, Audie Murphy, astronaut Pete Conrad Jr., Clark Clifford, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Francis Gary Powers, Frank Reynolds, George C. Marshall, George S. Patton IV, George Westinghouse, Glenn Miller, Gus Grissom, Harry Blackmun, Joe Louis, Lee Marvin, Medgar Evers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Omar Nelson Bradley, Robert Todd Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, Wiliam Francis Buckley, William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan.

And the list goes on.

But the main reason for the Arlington visit was a chance to see the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Yes, this is the 50th anniversary of his death. Those old enough will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day, much like on 9/11.

And, yes, the news media is going to go crazy in the next week or so commemorating his death.

Kennedy died at 1 p.m. that Friday while he rode in an open motorcade in Dallas. He was buried at Arlington on Nov. 25.


He was moved from the original gravesite to one just a few feet away on March 14, 1967. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was laid to rest next to him when she died of cancer in 1994.

His infant daughter (who was not named) is also buried in his gravesite as of Dec. 4, 1963. She was originally buried in Newport, R.I. She died on Aug. 23, 1956.

An infant son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy (Aug. 7, 1963-Aug. 9, 1963) who was born prematurely and who originally was buried in Brookline, Mass, also is buried on the site.

At first, it was thought that Kennedy would be buried in his home state of Massachusetts. It was reported by the New York Times that Kennedy would be buried at the Kennedy family plot in Holyhood Cemetery, near Brookline, Mass.

Jacqueline had other wishes. "He belongs to the people,'' she said.

The funeral was held at St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington. For anyone who has been in Washington, the procession proceeded by way of Connecticut Avenue, then counterclockwise around the Lincoln Memorial, across Memorial Bridge and over Memorial Drive to the cemetery.

The grave area measures 18 by 30 feet. It is paved with irregular stones of Cape Cod granite, which were quarried about 150 years ago near the site of the President's home. Fescue and clover — I didn't know this at the time of my visit — were planted in the crevices to give the appearance of stones lying naturally in a Massachusetts field.

On our visit — a Saturday — it was crowded but still manageable to get around. It is said that his gravesite is one of the most visited spots in the cemetery and that's understandable.


Upon entering the general area, you approach the grave by the way of a depressed circular walkway. The plaza is bounded by a granite tapered wall which is inscribed with quotations from President Kennedy's inaugural address and other speeches.

From the plaza, there's another short flight of steps which leads to the rectangular terrace and the grave plot.

You can't miss the Eternal Flame, which burns at the head of the President's grave. Mrs. Kennedy lit the flame on the day.

I could go into detail on how it remains lit, but I won't. But you should know that it has never been extinguished, even in snow, rain, wind and ice.

The total area of the site is 3.2 acres.

The site is appropriately landscaped with — and I'll borrow the rest of this from the JFK Presidential Library and Museum — "new plantings mingled among some of the historic trees. While magnolias predominate, there are crab apple, willow oak, hawthorn, yellow wood, American holly and cherry trees interspersed among flowering plants and shrubs.''

Long story short, it's scenic and beautiful. Look the other way and you see a majestic view of Washington, D.C.

Two of JFK's brothers — Robert and Ted — are buried nearby. Robert was assassinated, too, in 1968 while Teddy died in 2009.


Ironically, JFK placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Nov. 11, 1961. Eleven days prior to his assassination, Kennedy returned to Arlington for the 1963 Armistice Day services.

Nov. 22, 1963. Fifty years. It doesn't seem possible.

kennedy grave.jpg
kennedy grave.jpg

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