Fifty years ago today, a million people lined the streets of Washington D.C. to watch a funeral procession like none the nation had ever seen carry the coffin of President John F. Kennedy from the Capitol building to the White House.
Digital Dying has compiled an eyewitness collection of people from across the country who remember the funeral procession and subsequent service. Some of them are dear friends of the departed President, some took part in the ceremony, and some just came to Washington that day to say goodbye. Others, like Isaiah Tremaine of Plainfield, New Jersey, sat at home, glued to their televisions. “Although there was no school, I was up early and ready for that terrible day. As the President’s body rolled along the streets of Washington, thousands of soldiers and sailors lined every street. Army soldiers also rode the beautiful gray horses, which were carefully pulling the black carriage with JFK on it. There was also a soldier walking with a riderless horse, and another soldier right behind JFK carrying the flag of the President. I didn’t know the significance of the riderless horse, which also had a set of boots turned backward in the stirrups. It was mysterious and impressive.” – Isaiah Tremaine, Plainfield, New Jersey Other Great Reads: Rituals of a military funeral explained, “I have three clear memories: It was so cold, and my sister and I shivered in our short dresses and cotton socks. The city, to a girl who was then Caroline Kennedy’s age, seemed to be a confusing forest of strangers’ legs. And the hushed and weeping grown-ups were unforgettable. Outside the Capitol, mourners climbed on lamp posts, straining to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy for the final time. Children perched on their parents’ shoulders. And women used the mirrors in their 1960s compacts in an improvised effort to witness a few moments of the somber processional. As with so many families that day, mine decided to pile into a station wagon, determined to bear witness after a shocking national tragedy.” – Alexis Simendinger, Washington D.C. “The old guard is the oldest active regiment or unit in the United States Army; it was actually formed before the constitution was signed. Part of that guard is the Caisson platoon, which is where I was. Our primary duty is funerals in Arlington National Cemetery. I had only been with the unit for six months when I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I was soon given the task of leading Black Jack, a 16-year-old quarter horse that was to be the riderless horse for the fallen President’s funeral procession. When I started working with Black Jack, he was a middle-aged horse, about 16 and calm. He knew his job and did it. No muss, no fuss, no bother. Years later, I found out that when he was a young horse, he was wild, barely controllable. BlackJack had outgrown that wild behavior until the day of the ceremony. He got spooked and started to dance; he started throwing his head. He was completely wet with sweat, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with this horse, but I’m in big trouble.’ As soon as they got inside the White House, people tried to crowd around us, and Black Jack moved them back. People decided they didn’t want to get kicked or stomped.” – Arthur Carlson, Mobile, Alabama Other Great Reads: Gorillas, parrots, and horses commit suicide too “I was a friend and confidant of the Kennedys and delivered the eulogy at President Kennedy’s funeral. My relationship with John F. Kennedy actually began in the late 1940s, when I was serving as an assistant chancellor in Washington and Kennedy was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. The President’s religion, Roman Catholic, became a key point of contention during his campaign for President in 1960, and my relationship with him only grew during his time in the White House. When I learned the President was shot, I was actually in Rome for meetings of the Second Vatican Council. I was as numb and emotionally exhausted, like every other American struggling to make sense of the stunningly brutal murder. My own grieving, however, would have to wait. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy had asked that I deliver the eulogy for her husband – and my friend. I read some of Kennedy’s favorite Biblical passages, including part of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: ‘There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens, a time to be born, a time to die.’ I concluded the eulogy with Kennedy’s inaugural address: ‘And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and his help but knowing that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.’ In December 1963, the First Lady sent me a note thanking me for the eulogy. ‘I have meant to write you for so long,’ she wrote, ‘to thank you for the most moving way only you could have read those words at the funeral… With my deep appreciation, Respectfully, Jacqueline Kennedy.'” – Archbishop Philip Hannan, New Orleans, Louisiana (Archbishop Hannan died in 2011 at age 98) “According to the TV broadcasters, nothing like that had ever been done in America. Kings, presidents, ministers, senators, judges, and rulers from every nation paced down the streets of Washington. The crowds watching the spectacle were massive yet silent as the President’s body rolled by. They reached the church, the Kennedy family, and all those important people went inside. Then, carefully, the nine soldiers carried the body inside. In the church, a choir started singing. I couldn’t understand the words to the music…A funeral for an American president in a foreign language? I was still too numb for reason or logic, so for the first time in almost four days, I decided to leave JFK for awhile. I decided to go outside; I wanted to get away from things. So I got my youngest brother, Brian, who was now three years old, bundled him up, and went for a walk. Once outside, the brilliantly clear day blinded my television-tuned eyes. I realized I had not been out of the house since the assassination.” – Isaiah Tremaine, Plainfield, New Jersey