Monday, November 25, 2013

Burying Kennedy

On this day 50 years ago, America said goodbye to the 35th president of the United States.

The numbing shock of the events of the previous Friday had worn off enough for the grief to set in, kind of like when the novocaine wears off and your jaw starts to hurt, and it was time to mourn for John F. Kennedy, the youngest man to be elected president and the youngest president to die.

On Saturday, Nov. 23, the president's flag–draped coffin was placed in the East Room for 24 hours. The next day, it was carried on a horse-–drawn caisson to the Capitol to lie in state.

The new president, Lyndon Johnson, proclaimed Monday, Nov. 25, a national day of mourning. A requiem mass was held for Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, with the archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, presiding, then Kennedy was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Representatives of more than 90 countries attended the funeral.

My father and I usually have dinner together on Thursdays, and on more than one occasion he has observed that people are frozen in his memory as they were the last time he saw them. When I was growing up, he taught religion at a small college in central Arkansas. When he sees obituaries for old friends and colleagues that include pictures of them late in their lives, he can scarcely recognize them.

I guess it is like that for public figures.

Take John F. Kennedy Jr., for example. He was about to turn 3 when his father was killed, and, throughout his life, most people remembered his salute on this day 50 years ago. I can still remember my grandmother — who lived in Dallas most of her life and was not a Kennedy sympathizer — speaking of that "brave salute" that John–John gave his father's casket as it went by.

As an adult, he was recognizable because he had so much of the Kennedy look to him, but, right up until the time of his death in a plane crash in July 1999 — and even after — he lingered in the public's memory as little "John–John." Even though he went on to accomplish other things as an adult, the salute he gave his father's casket following the conclusion of the requiem mass was what most people remembered.

After he died, I remember reading obituaries that mentioned his childhood nickname in the lead paragraph. It was how most people probably remembered him, even though he had spent some time in the public eye as he launched a politically oriented magazine.

On this day in 1963, though, he and his sister were regarded as too young to attend the burial. John–John's salute, in addition to being an iconic image, was his final farewell to his father.

Anyone who has ever lived through the sudden death of a loved one knows that it doesn't end with the funeral, that there are many unexpected issues to confront in the weeks, months, even years that follow. It is a journey, sometimes an arduous one. So it was with those who survived John F. Kennedy.

It was on this day in 1963 that the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, truly embarked on what historian Arthur Schlesinger called the "corridors of grief" that he would have to navigate. To an extent, I guess, it was that way for all the Kennedys.

"[F]or those who believed in a universe infused by the Almighty with pattern and purpose — as the Kennedys did — Dallas brought on a philosophical as well as an emotional crisis," Schlesinger wrote. "Robert Kennedy in particular had to come to terms with his brother's death before he could truly resume his own existence."

The first steps on that journey began 50 years ago today.

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