The heartbreak of losing a president

  • Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband, President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • Observers at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • (L) People gather for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963. (R) President John F. Kennedy’s casket in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • Members of the White House staff file past the body of President John F. Kennedy in a closed, flag-draped coffin in the historic East Room of the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 23, 1963.
  • (L) A woman reacts to the funeral of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 25, 1963. (R) People walk past the casket of President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • Family members of President John F. Kennedy at his funeral on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • (L) Onlookers at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963. (R) People at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • One section of the street-lined crowd becomes emotional as the body of the President John F. Kennedy, borne upon a horse-drawn caisson, passes on the way to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 24, 1963.
  • Some try to view the events from trees at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • (L) The public lines the sidewalks at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963. (R) A man reacts during the funeral of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • Burial of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. on Nov. 25, 1963. His brother Robert F. Kennedy and widow Jacqueline Kennedy arrive with the president’s mother, Rose Kennedy behind them as the coffin is placed at the grave.
  • President John F. Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 25, 1963.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson places a wreath beside the casket of President John F. Kennedy in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 24, 1963.
  • People react to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in New York, NY.
  • John Kennedy Jr. salutes his fathers coffin as it passes by at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25, 1963. Standing behind him, from left, are Senator Edward Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

of

Updated

Among the most solemn days of the 20th century, the funeral of President John F. Kennedy occurred on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963. The event was at once personal and global, as millions of people from around the world tuned in to a live television broadcast.

The nation was still in shock from Kennedy’s assassination only three days before, and an estimated 81% of homes with a television had their sets tuned to the funeral possession, one the highest TV ratings in US history, according to Nielson.

“This is when America became a TV nation,” said Patty Rhule, a senior manager of exhibits at the Newseum in Washington. Television was fast becoming a ubiquitous presence in American homes, thanks in no small part to the telegenic Kennedy family.

Those who tuned in saw images of sorrow and prestige. Dozens of foreign dignitaries, including French president Charles De Gaulle and British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, flew in from around the world to march behind the funeral procession. The DC Metropolitan police chief Robert V. Murray later said that the all the attending heads of state and royalty made for the largest security risk his department had ever faced.

The unfortunate stars of the day, however, were the stricken members of the Kennedy family—most of all, Jacqueline Kennedy, the late president’s widow.

Approximately a million people lined the processional route, which went from the Capitol to The White House to St. Matthews Cathedral and finally Arlington National Cemetery. The procession was led by the Marine band.

Veteran journalist Bob Schieffer, who covered the event 50 years ago for The Fort Worth Star Telegram, said Kennedy’s funeral “became the template for coverage” of such tragedies. “We were working in one of the worst moments of the nation’s life back then and we didn’t know what to make of it, much like what happened on 9/11.”

As the casket was borne to its place of burial, Jacqueline Kennedy bent down and whispered to her son. John F. Kennedy Jr., known to many as “John John,” saluted his father’s coffin. Fifty years later, that image endures in the American consciousness, a grim, touching reminder of one of our nation’s saddest hours. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

Speak Out