John F. Kennedy’s First Casket Was Buried At Sea

Photo Credit: 1. Universal History Archive / UniversalImagesGroup / Getty Images 2. Bettmann / Getty Images

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is one of the most discussed events in the history of American politics. Dying after being shot in the head and neck, his body was moved from Texas to Washington, DC in a bronze casket. What many might not be aware of, though, is that it wasn’t the one he was buried in.

John F. Kennedy’s assassination

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and their wives were riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. At 12:30PM, shots rang from the Texas School Book Depository, aimed at the convoy. The person behind the shooting was US Marine Corps veteran Lee Harvey Oswald, who’d recently been hired at the book depository.

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy riding in a convertible driving by lines of people
John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy riding in the motorcade prior to the President’s assassination. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Kennedy was hit in the head and neck, while Connally was shot in the back. Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:00 PM. While seriously wounded, Connally recovered from his injuries.

At just before 2:40 PM, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who’d accompanied the Kennedys in the motorcade and was two cars back during the shooting, was sworn in as the country’s 36th president aboard Air Force One.

The need for two coffins

Immediately following Kennedy’s assassination, someone from his team called O’Neal’s Funeral Home in Dallas, requesting the best casket available be delivered to the hospital. The funeral home’s owner, Vernon O’Neal, chose a bronze one with a white satin inlay by the Elgin Casket Company. It had a price tag of $3,995 – more than $36,000 today.

After loading the coffin into a hearse, O’Neal drove to the hospital, where he was shocked by the condition of Kennedy’s body. Blood was still oozing from his bullet wounds. To prevent blood from staining the interior, he and some nurses wrapped the body in linen sheets and lined the casket with plastic.

Jacqueline Kennedy standing over John F. Kennedy's flag-draped casket
Jacqueline Kennedy standing over her husband’s flag-draped casket during the memorial ceremony. (Photo Credit: Wally McNamee / CORBIS / Getty Images)

At the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, the autopsy was performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, near Washington, DC. Her husband’s body was loaded into the passenger section of Air Force One and flown back to the nation’s capital. When the coffin was opened at the hospital, the doctors found the protective efforts made by O’Neal had been inefficient.

By the time the body was embalmed, the casket was no longer considered useable for Kennedy’s viewing at the Capitol Building and was replaced. Not knowing what to do with the original, the funeral home that embalmed Kennedy kept it in their possession for more than a year.

Preventing it from falling into the hands of the “morbidly curious”

Following Kennedy’s burial, the US government and Vernon O’Neal began arguing over the cost of the original coffin. The government felt the price was excessive, and O’Neal wanted it returned to Dallas, as he’d received offers of $100,000 – equivalent to nearly $1 million today – from those interested in purchasing it.

Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy watching as people lower John F. Kennedy's casket into a hearse
Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy watch as John F. Kennedy’s casket is lowered from the plane upon its return to Andrews Air Force Base. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Not wanting the casket to fall into the hands of the “morbidly curious,” the government paid O’Neal what was owed and placed it with the National Archives, where it remained for two years.

Burying the casket at sea

In 1999, documents were released regarding the casket’s fate following its stay in the National Archives. Robert Kennedy, the United States Attorney General at the time, had approached the government about having it buried at sea, to ensure it never fell into the hands of those who would exploit his brother’s death. Once approved the job of disposing of it was given to the US military.

Two Honor Guards standing watch of John F. Kennedy's casket
John F. Kennedy’s casket in the East Room of the White House. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

A submarine commander was tasked with figuring out how to securely drop and sink the casket. It was turned over to the US Air Force, and had 42 holes drilled into it and three 80-pound sandbags placed within. It was also fitted with two parachutes, to ensure it wouldn’t break apart upon impact with the water.

On a brisk February morning in 1966, a C-130 Hercules transport plane took off from its base and flew out into the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 100 miles east of Washington, DC. The area, used as the military’s dumping ground for unused and outdated ammunition and weapons, was chosen because it was out of the way of regular shipping and air travel and would “not be disturbed by trawling and other sea-bottom activities.”

Lyndon B. Johnson praying before the foot of John F. Kennedy's flag-draped coffin
Lyndon B. Johnson praying over John F. Kennedy’s casket. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)

After descending to 500 feet, the tail hatch of the plane was opened and the casket was dropped into the water. According to a February 25, 1966 memo from the special assistant to the defense secretary, “the parachutes opened shortly before impact and the entire rigged load remained intact and sank sharply, clearly and immediately after a soft impact.” After circling the area for 10 minutes, the C-130 flew back to the mainland.

The casket’s fate was rather fitting, as Kennedy, a Navy veteran, had once considered a burial at sea.