Open or Closed Casket? The Handling of JFK’s Body

Kennedy Funeral

Three months prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, on November 22nd, 1963, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death had appeared on bookshelves across the nation. Some of the people involved with the arrangements made for the president, including his brother Robert Kennedy, had read it, and were influenced by it. Others, such as the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, made decisions regarding the president’s body based on instinct and personal conviction.

Robert Kennedy had Mitford on his mind just after the body arrived at Bethesda Hospital from Dallas. Specifically, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in Robert Kennedy and His Times, he thought of Mitford when the funeral home wanted to know how grand the coffin should be. “I remember making the decision based on Jessica Mitford’s book,” Schlesinger quotes him as saying. “I remember thinking about it afterward, about whether I was cheap or what I was…”

According to another Kennedy aide, William Manchester, in The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963, the casket the was chosen for Kennedy’s transport from Parkland Memorial in Dallas was the “Brittania” model from the Elgin Casket Company, which was huge, made of solid bronze, and weighed over 700 pounds. It was chosen by Vernon Orneal, who owned a funeral home near Parkland, who assumed he would be in charge of the embalming and cosmetic work. He was disappointed, as the body was to be flown directly to Washington. The casket was accidentally damaged by secret service agents loading it into Air Force One.

Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy did not want any private undertaking firms handling the body, but others who were handling the funeral made the decision that a private funeral home, rather than the government, would in fact do the preparations. Gawler’s Funeral Home, which had handled past presidents, was recommended. No decision had been made yet about whether the casket would be open or closed. Because of the damage, a new casket was seen as necessary, and the “Marsellus No. 710” was chosen, made of 500-year-old solid African mahogany wood; the bill was $3,160.00.

Gawler’s men got to work after the autopsy, their goal to restore John F. Kennedy to the appearance of serene sleep. This, according to Gary Laderman, author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, is an especially difficult task, best performed in secrecy, and the men would have had an easier time if the body had been transported to the funeral home; but, the body remained in Bethesda Hospital, as per Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes.

The procedure lasted about three hours, under the auspices of Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. Burkley, who was concerned that someone might open the coffin “in a thousand years” and the face should look just right.

Early in the morning of Saturday, November 23rd, Jacqueline Kennedy insisted to Secretary of State Robert McNamara that the casket remain closed during the lying-in-state. According to Manchester, McNamara replied that this couldn’t be done: “Everybody wants to see a Head of State.” Mrs. Kennedy replied that this was awful and morbid, that public would have to remember the President alive.

Several people, including Robert Kennedy, subsequently went to view the face of the 35th president. All but McNamara agreed the president was not presentable. It was remarked that there was no resemblance to the president; “It’s a wax dummy.” There was a great public outcry when it was announced that the president’s casket would be closed. This was not to be an exact parallel to Lincoln’s funeral.

It was explained that Jacqueline Kennedy had acted as some religious leaders wished all families would, because viewing the body was more Pagan than Christian. A closed coffin made it easier to focus on the important point that it is the soul that matters.

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