On November 24, 1963, an unforgettable scene unfolded before the eyes of approximately 300,000 people who gathered to pay their respects to the fallen President, John F. Kennedy. A horse-drawn caisson, previously used to bear the bodies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Unknown Soldier, carried Kennedy’s flag-covered casket down the solemn White House drive. Parallel rows of soldiers, each holding the flag of one of the 50 states of the Union, lined the path, creating a poignant visual tribute to the nation’s unity in grief. The procession made its way along Pennsylvania Avenue, the somber atmosphere punctuated only by the muffled drums and the clacking of horses’ hooves.
At the forefront of this heartrending moment was the President’s widow, Jackie Kennedy, holding the hands of her two young children. A pillar of strength and composure, she led the nation in mourning, a symbol of grace amidst profound sadness. In the Capitol Rotunda, Mrs. Kennedy and her daughter Caroline knelt beside the casket, which rested on the Lincoln catafalque, paying their final respects to the beloved President.
During the memorial service, three-year-old John Jr. was briefly taken out of the rotunda to ensure a solemn atmosphere, allowing the nation to grieve in peace. Mrs. Kennedy, her courage unwavering, stood with dignity as her husband was taken to the Capitol to lie in state.
Inside the rotunda, brief eulogies were delivered by prominent figures, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Speaker McCormack. Each speaker honored President Kennedy’s legacy, paying tribute to his contributions to the nation.
The significance of the event was not lost on the nation. John F. Kennedy was the first president in over 30 years to lie in state in the rotunda, a distinction previously held by William Howard Taft in 1930. Additionally, he became the first Democrat to receive this honor at the Capitol, a testament to his impact as a leader transcending political affiliations.
The United States Capitol Rotunda holds a special place in the heart of the nation. Located below the iconic Capitol dome, it stands as the tallest part of the Capitol and serves as a symbolic and physical embodiment of American history and values. Measuring 96 feet in diameter and rising 180 feet and 3 inches to the canopy, the Rotunda plays a pivotal role in hosting important ceremonial events, such as the lying in state of eminent citizens and the dedication of significant works of art.
Adorning the Rotunda’s canopy is the renowned painting entitled “The Apotheosis of Washington,” while its walls feature historic paintings and a frescoed band, or “frieze,” depicting significant events in American history. This grand space serves as a repository of the nation’s heritage, a constant reminder of the struggles, triumphs, and aspirations that have shaped the United States.
In moments of national mourning, such as the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, the Honor Guards at military funerals come from the same branch as the deceased. However, in the case of the President, a special arrangement is made as he was the Commander-in-Chief of all branches. Traditionally, the Honor Guards are positioned facing outward, protecting the body of the President. But on this particular occasion, Jackie Kennedy requested that the Honor Guards stand facing inwards, towards her husband, as she felt that President Kennedy looked lonely and she wanted to offer him the companionship and honor he deserved.
As the nation bid farewell to its beloved President, the poignant and historic events in the Capitol Rotunda served as a solemn tribute to John F. Kennedy’s legacy. The Rotunda, with its awe-inspiring architecture and rich symbolism, provided a fitting backdrop for the nation to come together in collective mourning and reverence for a leader who left an indelible mark on American history.