JFK Eternal Flame history

The John F Kennedy Eternal Flame presidential memorial is one of the centerpieces of the Arlington National Cemetery. It pays honor to one of most famous of all US presidents; John F Kennedy.


John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or “JFK” as he is also known, was born in 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts. John was the second son of Joseph P Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, whose father was a prominent Boston politician. JFK however, didn’t become a politician right away.

After his studies, which included several public and private schools and an international affairs degree from Harvard, John volunteered for the US Army during the Second World War. He served several years in the US Navy, first in office and then later on the field where he took part in several missions in the Pacific.

Political Career

John older brother, Joseph Jr., was the one who were suppose to carry the family’s political traditions on. However, Joseph served as a pilot during the Second World War and was killed during one of his missions. Joseph’s death was one of the reasons John decided to get involved in politics.

John quickly became a successful politician and tried to become Democratic Party’s vice president choice for the 1956 elections. He failed, but decided to run for President himself four years later. This time he was successful and he became the 35th US President after beating Richard Nixon in one of the closest presidential races in the 20th century.

A trying era

John F Kennedy was a strong believer in civil rights, which came to shape his domestic and foreign policies. He is also known for his famous speeches. During his inaugural address, he delivered the legendary; “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Kennedy’s was the president in a very tough era. He was facing the Cold War, with the newly erected Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crises.

He was also president during the ongoing race to space where he said; “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

JFK gets shot

On November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in an open limousine during a parade on a campaign trip to Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the schoolbook depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired from, was arrested and charged with the assassination of Kennedy.

He denied shooting anyone and claimed he was set up. Before any trials could be held, Oswald himself was shot at point-blank range and killed during the move to a high security prison. The motives for all these shootings are still to a large extent unknown.

The burial place

After Kennedy’s death, many believed he would be buried in the state of Massachusetts, as it was the common practice that former presidents were buried in their home states. Jacqueline Kennedy however had a wish which simply stated that he should belong to the people.

With this, the possibility of placing Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery was investigated. Arlington seemed the perfect choice, as it is one of the largest cemeteries in the US where hundreds of thousands of people, who also gave their life for their country, is buried.

Three sites within the cemetery were considered and the final choice fell on the slope area below Arlington House. The grave of Kennedy is directly aligned with the Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial.  JFK’s funeral was also modeled after Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, as a wish of Jacqueline Kennedy. Both were two great presidents and both became assassinated.

The eternal flame

It was also his wife’s wish to place the eternal flame on his grave, a flame visitors can still see burning today. The flame was inspired by the French Tomb of the Unknown Solider under the Arch of Triumph in Paris, which the Kennedys had visited earlier in 1961.

The planners who were organizing the funeral granted her request immediately and rushed to implement it. Overnight, the engineers ran a gas line to the planned gravesite, fed by propane tanks from a distance.

The state funeral was held on November 25th, 1963, where several heads of states were attending. At the end of the burial service, Jacqueline Kennedy lit the flame with a lightened taper. About a month after it was lit, the flame was temporarily extinguished when a Catholic school group visiting the site poured, rather than sprinkled, holy water directly onto the flame.

Burial site expansion

The burial site quickly became crowded after it opened to the public, as many people wanted to visit the grave of their newly lost president. During the first year, often as many as 3,000 people an hour visited the Kennedy gravesite and on weekends an estimated 50,000 people visited the grave.

This led to the construction of a gravesite more suitable for visitors, with a paved area surrounding the graves. The area was paved with irregular stones of Cape Cod granites, stones which had been quarried at a site near the president’s home in Brookline.

Why visit JFK Eternal Flame ?

Many visit the grave of JFK and the eternal flame to pay their respect to the former president. The eternal flame of today burns non stop. The flame is specially designed by the Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago.

It consists of a constantly flashing electric spark near the tip of the nozzle which instantly relights the gas if the flame should be extinguished by rain, wind or accident. The fuel is natural gas and is mixed with a controlled quantity of air to achieve the color and shape of the flame.

A respected family grave

Visitors to the grave will see JFK’s burial plaque in the ground together with his wife’s next to him. On the far sides, one can also see two smaller plaques. These are for the two of Kennedy’s children, who also are buried on the site. One of them, a son, was born five and a half weeks prematurely and died two days later.

The other, a daughter, was dead on birth.
Close to the JFK Eternal Flame, visitors can find the gravesites of John’s brothers; Robert and Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy, a Senator who also became assassinated during a run for Presidency, is buried about 100 feet away from the Eternal Flame and their brother Ted, a longtime Senator, is buried about 100 feet farther away.

A well visited site

Over the years, the JFK Eternal Flame has been visited by millions of people. It has become a symbol for JFK and what he stood for. The memorial has been the official postage stamp, with a picture of the flame together with the text: “And the glow from that fire can truly light the world”.

This phrase was delivered during Kennedy’s inaugural address by John himself; a man whose own fire burned – and still burns – to light the world.

JFK Eternal Flame location

The JFK Eternal Flame yis located in eastern United States, inside Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington D.C. The cemetery is situated directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. For the exact location of Arlington National Cemetery, check out the location map to the right!

JFK Eternal Flame Video

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