By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
Over 46 years have passed since John F. Kennedy's eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery was lit, and yet there are still new stories emerging about the nation's most publicized burial. Robert Poole, who's penned an authoritative history of the renowned graveyard of American war heroes, On Hallowed Ground, says that Jacqueline Kennedy's vision of the eternal flame wasn't just based on the one she and JFK had seen at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Poole reveals that the couple had visited Gettysburg for the centennial of the tide-turning 1863 battle and that the imposing Eternal Light Peace Memorial had wowed Jackie. And there's this tidbit about the flame from the former National Geographic executive editor: We knew that the day after the burial a woman accidentally extinguished the fire with holy water. But it was a Zippo from an Old Guard soldier that relit the flame. Then there's the story about Black Jack, the unruly riderless cavalry horse that followed Kennedy's caisson. Poole quotes the horse handler, saying that he wanted to "hit that sonofabitch with a very big board right over the head" for acting up all the way to Arlington.
While the cemetery—established in 1864 on the grounds of former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's plantation to honor the nation's war dead and statesmen—was well known, JFK's interment made it a tourist hot spot and a desirable burial ground. "Arlington was on the map, but that really brought it to everyone's attention," says Poole. Tourism at the 3.2-acre Kennedy plot in Section 30 spiked when Robert F. Kennedy was buried next to his brother in 1968 and just recently when Edward M. Kennedy was placed there, too. It's also a haven for thieves and attention hounds. "Any place that becomes famous," says Poole, "also attracts people who want attention."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.