The eternal flame, the iconic symbol that has marked President John F. Kennedy’s grave since his burial in November 1963, is at the moment basically a fake flame. The real flame is undergoing rehab. The Arlington National Cemetery public affairs office uses the term “temporary” in explaining the current status of the flame. It is only the second time a temporary flame has been used at the site. The cemetery spokesperson says the permanent flame will be reinstalled in mid-October.
Visitors to the site will notice that the permanent flame site is capped with a metal plate. Behind it is a gray box with a flame.
The initial symbolic flame was lit by Jacqueline Kennedy on November 25 at her husband’s funeral ceremony, three days after he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. That flame was also temporary and eventually replaced by a permanent flame, composed of natural gas and air to achieve a distinctive and consistent color and shape. According to the website for the gravesite, the flame employs “a constantly flashing electric spark near the tip of the nozzle [that] relights the gas should the flame be extinguished by rain, wind, or accident.”
There have been occasional flame malfunctions, and a major repair began early this year. An initial upgrade included installing new gas lines, automated controls, and a new electrical conduit and cable, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, who oversee the technical maintenance. The current flame upgrade is additional work.
Our inquiry with Arlington Cemetery received this reply: “We have a temporary flame out right now while we continue to repair the [permanent] flame. We expect the [permanent] flame to be placed back in the mid-October timeframe.” The temporary flame is propane gas. The spokesperson says the permanent flame “will use natural gas and the gas line will be underground.”
In addition to John and Jacqueline, two of the couple’s children are also buried at the gravesite: Patrick Bouvier, who died soon after birth, and an unnamed daughter who was stillborn. JFK’s brothers, Robert and Ted Kennedy, are buried nearby and there’s also a marker for their older brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy.