The Almost Eternal Flame

Gravesite of President and Mrs. Kennedy (Photo by Don Knebel)

John F. Kennedy, born 102 years ago on May 29th, is one of two presidents (William Howard Taft is the other) buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  He is the only President whose grave is marked by a so-called “eternal flame.”

After President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, his wife Jacqueline selected his gravesite on a hillside just below Arlington House, which the President had admired just months earlier.  The day before the funeral, Mrs. Kennedy asked that the grave be forever marked by a flame like the one at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Engineers hastily connected a tiki torch to a propane tank, concealing the equipment beneath evergreen branches.  To accommodate growing crowds, the body of the President was later moved 20 feet downhill and a more permanent flame mechanism installed after cemetery officials concluded that the gravesite was not subject to the rules of Arlington National Cemetery that banned such devices.  The new mechanism was set in a round fieldstone from Cape Cod and included a lighter to reignite the flame whenever it goes out, which it does from time to time, usually because of the wind.

Despite the re-ignition mechanism, the flame has been manually relighted on at least three occasions, the first when a group of school children unintentionally doused it with holy water.  In 1967, a heavy rain flooded both the flame and the re-igniter.  In 2013, the re-igniter failed and had to be replaced, requiring the flame to be extinguished after first being used to light a temporary flame nearby.

After her death in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy was buried beside her husband, joining two of their children who died shortly after birth.  Thousands of people still visit their gravesite every year, some attracted by its eternal flame.

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