I watched President Kennedy's funeral on Monday, the viewing as somber in 2013 as it surely was 50 years ago. November 25, 1963 was a national day of mourning — no work, no school. I played tag with grade school friends and roller skated the neighborhood as the events unfolded in Washington. I also remember wishing I could see the funeral but our family TV was broken. Thanks to this week's retro coverage on CBSNews.com, I finally did.
The Kennedy funeral was a uniquely American blend of pageantry and simplicity. We're talking about the President of the United States, so a certain protocol and decorum were required. And yet, this was not the funeral of a king or emperor, with the pomp and circumstance of royalty. The President is elected from the people and for the people. In life and in death, he is one of us, and we have a right, no, an obligation to honor our President when he departs from this world. Still, there was cruel irony in the fact that it was John Kennedy's accessibility that got him killed.
An estimated 250,000 people filed past President Kennedy's casket as he lied in state under the Capitol Rotunda. More than 300,000 lined the streets of Washington as the funeral procession made its way around the city. 93 percent of America saw the funeral of television, the largest viewing audience ever recorded to that point.
There is something to be said about how the time between death and funeral is so important to a grieving family. From personal experience, I know the planning, the creative remembering, and the preparations keep the family busy and focused during a very difficult time. Mrs. Kennedy is to be commended for putting together, in a stunningly brief time, a funeral that went a long way in helping America to heal.
There are elements about the funeral that are forever seared into the collective memory of the Boomer generation: the simple and stark Rotunda service, as Mrs. Kennedy and daughter Carolyn knelt and kissed the flag-draped casket while soldiers stood at attention and wept; the clop-clop of the six white horses as they led the wheeled caisson that bore the casket while the military color guard followed, bearing the flags of the United States and the Presidential seal; feisty Black Jack, the riderless horse modeled after a similar equine who marched in Abraham Lincoln's funeral; the mournful tunes of the military bands and bagpipe brigades, whose drummers twirled their mallets with impressive precision. And then there was that funeral beat the drummers played to fill out the silence between band numbers. It echoed hauntingly throughout the streets of Washington:
Brrrrr rum-pum-puddy-bum. . .
I was fascinated to see how President Kennedy's funeral liturgy was conducted in 1963, exactly one year before Mass in English was promulgated in the United States under the mandate of the Second Vatican Council. The Latin Mass was rarely televised in the early Sixties, and there it was in all its glory. The majority of dignitaries packed into St. Matthew's Cathedral were probably not Catholic and were surely puzzled by a liturgy they could not understand. But for Catholics in the cathedral and watching on television, the Mass was a source of solace and consolation.
Mrs. Kennedy asked family friend Richard Cardinal Cushing to celebrate a Low Requiem Mass instead of the customary High Mass celebrated in parishes during a funeral. She was probably concerned that the length of a High Mass, where just about everything is sung in proper sequence, might be too much for the non-Catholics. There was usually no singing at a Low Mass but in those pre-Council days music could be sung "to foster the devotion of the faithful" throughout the liturgy. Interestingly, there was no requirement at Low Mass to match the music to the ritual action.
For example, at the Kennedy Funeral Mass, a soloist sang Schubert's "Ave Maria" during the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the pre-Council version of today's Penitential Act. The Schubert composition was so long that it spilled over into the Epistle, which was read quietly by the cardinal in Latin and not proclaimed as readings are today. "Dies Irae," the Gregorian chant funeral masterpiece, was sung during the Gospel!
English was heard only twice at the President's funeral Mass: during a planned post-Communion reflection by Auxiliary Bishop Philip M. Hannan in which he quoted Kennedy's Inaugural Address; and during the rite of Final Commendation, when Cardinal Cushing spontaneously departed from the official Latin text and proclaimed the words in English, his voice shaking with emotion.
"May the angels, dear Jack, lead you into Paradise. May the martyrs receive you at your coming. May the Spirit of God embrace you, and mayest thou, with all those who made the supreme sacrifice of dying for others, receive eternal rest and peace. Amen."
Throughout that weekend of shock and heartache, Mrs. Kennedy was a model of composure. Surely, of all people, she deserved to be beside herself in grief. She cradled her husband's bloody head on her lap, after all. Yet, there she was on national television, quietly leading a grieving nation with poise and dignity.
Perhaps the most iconic image of the weekend was the President's son, little John-John, whose 3rd birthday was that very funeral day. At the conclusion of the liturgy, as the family and the funeral cortege departed from the cathedral, the worldwide audience was deeply moved by a touching and unforgettable moment. Author William Manchester captured it well in his 1967 book, The Death of a President.
It lasted but an instant. The momentum of the pageant had caught them up again, and even as Mrs. Kennedy put John to her left, in front of the Attorney General, the band struck up "Hail to the Chief." This was the last time it would be played for President Kennedy. Soldiers snapped from parade rest to present arms. Officers, policemen, and the lead rider of the matched grays saluted. The clergy folded hands; laymen straightened. Jacqueline Kennedy, remembering how the boy loved to play soldiers with his father, leaned over and said, "John, you can salute Daddy now and say good-bye to him."Didn't we all?
The small right hand rose stiffly. Behind him Robert Kennedy's face crinkled in pain, and Bishop Hannan, glancing across the street, saw the spectators there crumple as though struck. Of all Monday's images, nothing approached the force of John's salute. Mrs. Kennedy, standing erect, missed it, and when she was shown the photographs afterward she was astounded. She had expected an unimpressive gesture; in the past his saluting had been both comic and, in her words, "sort of droopy."
But not now. Somehow the mood and meaning of the day had reached the President's son. His elbow was cocked at precisely the right angle, his hand was touching his shock of hair, his left arm was rigidly at his side, his shoulders were squared and his chin in. His bearing was militant, and to see it in a three-year-old, with his bare legs stiff below his short coat, his knees dimpled and his blunt red shoes side by side — to hear the slow swell of the music, and recall how the President had idolized him — was almost insupportable. Cardinal Cushing looked down on the small face. He saw the shadow of sadness crossing it and felt a burning sensation in his chest. Eight months later he could barely speak of it. "Oh, God," he whispered hoarsely, "I almost died."
John-John's iconic salute to his slain father. Cardinal Cushing is at far right, wearing biretta.
President Kennedy did not have the time to carve out a meaningful list of accomplishments during his all-too-brief tenure in office. And yet, his sudden unexpected death still haunts and defines my generation. Perhaps his legacy is one of promise unfulfilled. It would be up to our generation to keep Kennedy's fire burning, despite the sad repetition of death that would later visit upon his brother Bobby and even his own son John, Jr. If nothing else, President Kennedy inspired hope, and hope will never die.
"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . and the glow from that fire can truly light the world . . ."
— Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy