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Monday, March 20, 2006 Bookmark Now! | Email to a friend  

How does the eternal flame on JFK's grave stay lit? Has it ever gone out?

Two different "eternal" flames have graced the grave of slain President John F. Kennedy. Inspired by the Flame of Remembrance that burns at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, Jackie Kennedy decided she wanted a similar memorial for her husband. The problematic job of designing and building it was assigned to Colonel Clayton B. Lyle, an army engineer.

With very little time before the funeral, Lyle and his crew located a luau lamp in a local electrical shop, tested it, and found the flame sufficiently weather resistant. They welded metal strips into a base and searched for a propane company that could supply the fuel. The crew worked all night before the funeral to lay down a gas line to the burial site. And on November 25, 1963, as Lyle and his crew watched
anxiously, the flame glowed to life when Jackie Kennedy touched a burning taper to it during her husband's funeral.

The flame was extinguished on one noteworthy occasion, when a visiting Catholic school group doused it with holy water. A quick-thinking guard used his lighter to reignite the flame.

When Kennedy's remains were interred in a permanent grave in March of 1964, Lyle's makeshift lamp and propane canisters were replaced with a new torch and an underground line of natural gas. Designed by the Institute of Gas Technology of Chicago, the current flame burns in the center of a 5-foot circle of granite at the head of the grave. If it is ever extinguished, a flashing electric spark near the tip of the nozzle relights it instantly. And occasionally, the flame is shut off
for maintenance.

In the words of one Arlington historian, "The flame does burn 24 hours a day, but obviously it is only as 'eternal' as anything man made can be."

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