April 14, 1865, and November 22, 1963 were days of tragedy. Unsuspecting presidents shot by unsuspected assassins. On that 1865 night, the sixteenth president attended a play at the theater and as laughter rang out the murderer fired a shot into his skull. On that 1963 afternoon, the thirty-fifth president rode in an open automobile along a Dallas street and the murderer fired from a upperstory window, leaving the president with horrific mortal injuries. In the aftermath of the fired shots, both unconscious presidents were taken for medical aid. Both deaths occurred at critical moments in United States history and plunged the nation into waves of reaction and grief.
There had been other presidents assassinated between the administrations of Lincoln and Kennedy. Both James A. Garfield (1881) and William McKinley (1901) had been felled by assassins’ shots. However, Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths would be historically connected in a particular and unique way: their funeral ceremonies.
While Mary Lincoln collapsed with grief in 1865 and left the funeral arrangements to others—mainly George R. Harrington, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury—Jackie Kennedy in her silent shock and deep sorrow knew she could leave a final visual legacy of her husband and his presidency. Mrs. Kennedy insisted on funeral ceremonies that mirrored the precedents set by Lincoln’s funeral and told her wishes to chief usher J.B. West.
By the time Air Force One returned to Washington D.C., the similarities began. President Kennedy’s sealed casket was carried to the White House and placed in the East Room on Lincoln’s funeral catafalque. There a private ceremony was held with the Kennedy family in attendance. Official visitors came next to pay their respect to the fallen president and his family. On Sunday, November 24, the casket was taken to the Capitol building. After a congressional memorial service, Kennedy lay in state in the Rotunda while 250,000 citizens filed passed to pay their respects. The following day the casket was taken back to the White House where the family and dignitaries came into procession behind the flag draped coffin on the military caisson, following it to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. A final funeral procession took the president’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery for burial, at a site that looks across the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial.
The military, civil and foreign dignitaries, funeral dirges, pattern of lying in state at White House and Capitol, and the final funeral procession were purposely similar. However, two particular differences stand out. First, Lincoln’s remains were taken across the country by train for burial in Springfield, Illinois, while Kennedy was buried in nearby Arlington National Cemetery. Second, Mrs. Lincoln did not publicly attend her husband’s funeral; Mrs. Kennedy did.
From the moment the shots were fired, Jackie Kennedy protected her husband and the way he would be remember. Privately, she had been doing that for years, never making a public scene about his indiscretions and adultery. In Dallas, she used her body to shield the view of his injuries, and she refused to change her bloodied pink suit, saying, “Oh, no… I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” She would not let the media or the nation she the extent of the president’s injuries, but she wore enough evidence in front of them to leave no doubt. Her choice for the funeral ceremonies and the decision to walk publicly in a mourning veil with her two young children broke the Lincoln protocol, a reminder that a hundred years had passed. Women were allowed to take a more visible and active role, if they chose than would have been offered to Mary Lincoln, even if she had desired it.
Mrs. Kennedy’s choice for a public funeral allowed the nation to see, mourn publicly, and —some historians have suggested —continue moving forward to meet the increasing challenges of the Cold War, the Vietnam Conflict, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race. Her choice was also conscious of the historic precedent; Jackie Kennedy had spent years helping to research and restore the White House. She was keenly aware of American history, precedent, and image. Not only did the Lincoln funeral have all the needed honor and solemnity, following its precedent would give her husband a final honor and attempt to place his legacy at the Lincoln level.
Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas, Texas. (Visited in September 2021)
White House History: https://www.whitehousehistory.org/john-f-kennedy-funeral (Accessed on September 23, 2021)
Ford’s Theater Blog:
https://www.fords.org/blog/post/understanding-mary-lincoln/ (Accessed on September 23, 2021)
https://www.fords.org/blog/post/the-man-behind-the-lincoln-funeral-george-r-harrington/ (Accessed on September 25, 2021)