Farewell to a first lady

May 24, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- As the Eternal Flame that she lit more than three decades ago flickered in the bright afternoon sunlight, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery on a grassy slope beside her first husband, President John F. Kennedy.

President Clinton, joining the 100 family members and close friends gathered at the private ceremony, hailed Mrs. Onassis, who died of cancer Thursday at age 64, as a woman who "seemed always to do the right thing, in the right way."

"God gave her very great gifts and imposed upon her great burdens," said Mr. Clinton. "She bore them all with dignity and grace and uncommon common sense."

On a clear, hot day as chirping birds mixed with the roar of airplanes overhead, Mrs. Onassis' two children, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 36, and John F. Kennedy Jr., 33, read from Scripture and then knelt before a mahogany casket draped with greens and purple and white lilies in the form of a cross.

With members of the large Kennedy family following behind, each one stopping to kneel by the casket, the two Kennedy children each kissed their mother's coffin, with Ms. Schlossberg placing a white lily atop the bier and Mr. Kennedy reaching over to touch the stone that marks his father's grave.

The brief ceremony was conducted by retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannon, who gave the eulogy at President Kennedy's funeral in 1963.

It brought to a close a celebrated chapter in U.S. history -- and in popular culture -- that Mrs. Onassis symbolized with grace and style.

Thousands of mourners -- many who remembered the solemn funeral of John F. Kennedy 30 years ago -- gathered outside the great iron gates of Arlington cemetery and outside the New York church where Mrs. Onassis was eulogized yesterday morning.

"Camelot Will Be Reunited in Heaven," said a sign held by a mourner outside the funeral. Although yesterday's ceremonies were private, the burial service was broadcast live on network TV, as was the audio portion of the funeral service.

The graveside ceremony was attended largely by family members, including Mrs. Onassis' brother-in-law, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts; her sister, Lee Radziwill Ross; numerous Kennedy cousins; Maurice Tempelsman, a wealthy Belgian-born diamond importer who was a constant companion of Mrs. Onassis in the last years of her life; Provedencial Parades, a White House maid during the Kennedy administration; and the Clintons.

Rose Kennedy, the 104-year-old matriarch of the Kennedy clan, was said to have watched the ceremonies on TV.

Although Mrs. Onassis had been married and widowed again since her marriage to President Kennedy, the portrait of the wife and mother that emerged yesterday was the one the world wished most to cling to: that of a Kennedy.

Onassis family absent

The name of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping tycoon who died in 1975 as their marriage was souring, was never mentioned in either ceremony, nor were any Onassis relatives present.

Instead, it was the courageous and beautiful young wife and widow who held the nation, and her family, together in a time of profound shock and sorrow who was remembered.

Mr. Clinton called Mrs. Onassis a "remarkable woman whose life will forever glow in the lives of her fellow Americans."

"Whether she was soothing a nation grieving for a former president, or raising the children with the care and the privacy they deserve, or simply being a good friend, she seemed always to do the right thing, in the right way," he said.

"May the flame she lit so long ago burn ever brighter here and always brighter in our hearts."

Mrs. Onassis was buried between the slain president and the couple's first child, an unnamed daughter stillborn in 1956.

On the other side of the president's grave is their son Patrick, who died three days after his birth in the summer of 1963.

The Kennedy gravesite, marked by the Eternal Flame that the 34-year-old widow lit soon after her husband was assassinated in November 1963, is one of the top tourist attractions in the nation's capital.

Crowd of 1,500

Yesterday, a solemn crowd of more than 1,500 people lined a road leading to the cemetery to catch a glimpse of the funeral motorcade and pay final respects.

One child saluted the 28-vehicle procession. Betty and Henry Noland removed their hats as the hearse rode by.

"I am here because of her sense of noblesse oblige," said Mrs. Noland, 70, of Alexandria, Va. "She always did the right thing. Privilege brings responsibility, and she never did anything inappropriate despite everything she had to go through."

The Nolands recalled a similar day more than three decades ago when they and their young children waited for 10 hours to view the body of John F. Kennedy at the Capitol.

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