Thanks to Television, I have been a spectator at a number of state and semi-state funerals in my lifetime. But none had the impact of the first one I ever watched - that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 46-year old, 35th President of the United States, assassinated after less than three years in office. It was likely the first event that the entire country ever watched together. (Marina Oswald, the assassin's widow, apparently watched as much of it as she could before having to leave to go to bury her husband, who had himself been shot and killed the day before.) It was also probably the first Catholic Mass many non-Catholic Americans ever experienced.
The solemnities began with the Kennedys and the Johnsons returning to the Capitol where Kennedy had lain in state since the previous afternoon. Once again, we heard Hail to the Chief and watched the military caisson retrace the previous day's path back to the White House. There the Kennedys and the Johnsons got out of their cars and led an assemblage of 100+ Monarchs, Presidents, and Prime Ministers walking behind the coffin to Washington's Saint Matthew's Cathedral, where Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing waited to celebrate Kennedy's Exequial Mass. Some seven years later when I was studying in Austria, a British fellow student remarked how disorganized that international procession had appeared to her. I remember replying how that was what appealed so to Americans - simultaneously combining both high dignity and a certain American-style informality!
The Roman Catholicism of our first Catholic president had never been hidden, but it had rarely been so prominently on display as at his funeral. It has been said that many Americans saw their first Mass on television that day. The world-historical significance of the event notwithstanding, what they saw may not have been all that impressive. it was a Low Mass, which was at that time really rare for funerals, but which it may have been thought would make it appear less alien to an American Protestant audience. While it is true that Low Mass was less ostentatious, it also made it less obvious what was going on. So it may still have seemed an obscure ritual for those unfamiliar with it. Watching it today on YouTube, my guess is that someone who has grown up with the post-conciliar liturgy might likewise find the ceremony somewhat alien.
I remember too that the Kennedys went to Communion during the Mass. Communion of the congregation at funerals was still something of a novelty, although I had experienced it once before at the funeral of one of our elementary school teachers. In those days, of course, other than Communion there were no options in the liturgy. The texts and prayers of the Mass and the Absolution after Mass were exactly what they would have been for anyone else. Some years later, a non-Catholic acquaintance commented how strange she had found Kennedy's funeral service. She was used to funerals which were all about praising the deceased, not praying to be delivered from everlasting death on that day of terror when the heavens and the earth will be shaken! If nothing else, we Catholics understood what a funeral was about - in those days at least!
Outside the Cathedral, one last Hail To the Chief and the famous John, Jr., salute to his father (photo). Then the full military state procession to Arlington, which my grandmother called a festa, an word I was American enough to find jarring even if I understood the more nuanced meaning of the Italian expression. As the procession came to a halt at the cemetery, my father wondered why we had not heard the National Anthem at all. Just then the military band played The Star Spangled Banner! The standard Prayers followed (in the form they would have been said at that time), the 21-gun salute, the 50-plane overflight, the 3 Volleys, Taps, the lighting of the Eternal Flame - and then it was done.
Eisenhower and Truman, as we soon learned, were famously reconciled that day. One of the prayers we used to pray in English at the end of funerals, asked, "Let our hearts, we pray you, be deeply moved at this sight of death." Something of that sort seemed to have touched the two aging ex-presidents, who that day shared a ride, reminisced, and even ate and drank together at Blair House after the funeral.
That evening, a Solemn Requiem was celebrated in my parish church. My newlywed cousin and her husband, who lived in the neighborhood, attended that Mass and then stopped by our apartment afterwards. From all the reports, it was quite an overflow crowd in church that night. The civil and military ceremonies may have ended, but we Catholics were doing what we always did for one of our own.
And then life resumed, and we resumed our regular routines. Historians will debate on and on about the legacy of the Kennedy years and what difference the change in presidents made or didn't make. As I recall it, foreign policy remained essentially the same, while domestic policy became somewhat more liberal. But then other things happened and the world really did change. Meanwhile, the Kennedy assassination may or may not have changed America, but the Kennedy assassination weekend - i.e., the collective experience my generation had those four days - did change America, as we only appreciated in retrospect.
Kennedy had come to power as the representative of the World War II generation - now known as the "Greatest Generation." They were, as Kennedy said in his Inaugural "born in this century, disciplined by war, tempered by a hard and bitter peace." But, in the years after his assassination, the next generation - the "Baby Boomers" (much less "disciplined" and much less "tempered") - pushed itself to center stage. There were so many of us!