Kennedys to gather aboard Navy vessel for burial at sea of John F. Kennedy Jr.

His wife and her sister to be committed to the deep

July 22, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Frank D. Roylance | Tom Bowman and Frank D. Roylance,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Kennedys are expected to assemble aboard the destroyer USS Briscoe and slip the remains of John F. Kennedy Jr. into the Massachusetts waters the family has sailed in times of joy and sorrow.

The ceremony is expected to take place this morning, said Pentagon and government sources, under a Navy regulation that allows civilians to be buried at sea in the event of "notable service or outstanding contributions" to the United States.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy asked Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to permit the burial at sea, an ancient maritime tradition. The Briscoe was ordered north from Virginia, where it was conducting training maneuvers, and arrived off Massachusetts late yesterday.

"It's not going to be a military ceremony," a Pentagon official said. "His remains will be committed to the sea by his family."

Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and sister-in-law Lauren G. Bessette, 34, were killed in a plane crash Friday night.

According to the New York Times, his wife and her sister also are to be buried at sea.

A Pentagon official said the ceremony would include a Catholic priest, a Catholic Navy chaplain and Rear Adm. Barry Black, the Navy's deputy chief of chaplains.

There are six criteria for burial at sea in Navy regulations. All but one require the deceased to be a member or retired member of the military or the dependent of a retiree.

Other U.S. citizens can be deemed eligible by the chief of naval operations if they performed "notable service" or made "outstanding contributions" to the country.

"We're going on [No.] 6," the official said, adding that the use of the USS Briscoe was approved by Adm. Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations.

The official pointed to Kennedy's charitable works, including his creation of the Reaching Up program for disadvantaged youth, his work with the homeless, the John F. Kennedy Library and his service on the President's Commission on Mental Retardation.

Officials noted that while Kennedy never served in the military, his father was a veteran of World War II who commanded PT-109 and saved the crew after it was struck by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands.

As the son of a Navy veteran, Kennedy would have been automatically eligible for a Navy burial at sea if he had died before age 21. He was 38.

The Kennedy family has been linked to the choppy waters of Vineyard Sound since the 1920s, when family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy bought a summer home in Hyannis Port. Throughout childhood, his nine children were involved in sailing races on those waters.

The family's love of boats continued into adulthood, when the cruisers and sailboats of President Kennedy and his siblings could often be seen in nearby waters.

On his final visit to Cape Cod, in the fall of 1963, President Kennedy toured nearby Lewis Bay with his father aboard his yacht the Marlin. When word came that John F. Kennedy Jr. was lost, many members of his extended family climbed aboard their boats and headed for those same waters.

The disposal of remains over water is increasingly popular, funeral industry officials say, part of a search for more personal ways to say goodbye.

"There is a trend toward personalizing a funeral and making it a celebration of life as much as a recognition of a death," said Kelly Smith, public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wis. "It's a trend we have seen develop very rapidly over the last 10 to 15 years."

John C. Reilly, head of the ship's history branch of the U.S. Naval Historical Center, said ocean burials "have been around as long as people have been going to sea."

When sailing ships were at sea for months at a time, without refrigeration, disposal of bodies became an urgent necessity. As recently as World War II, Reilly said, "fleets and task forces operating at sea in the Western Pacific for weeks and months at a time didn't have the space really to store bodies, and couldn't return them."

Today, most ocean burials involve the scattering of ashes. But to be within Roman Catholic beliefs, Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would have to be buried at sea without cremation. The Catholic faith does not allow the scattering of ashes, at sea or anywhere. Cremains must be interred in a consecrated cemetery or mausoleum, said the Rev. Lawrence Waudby, secretary to Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Waudby said there are no Catholic prohibitions on ocean burial.

The Catholic rite of committal includes a prayer for such occasions. It says in part:

"As we commit the body of our brother (or sister, followed by the name), to the deep, grant him peace and tranquility until that day when he and all who believe in you will be raised to the glory of a new life promised in the waters of baptism "

However, CNN was reporting last night that Kennedy's cremated remains would be buried at sea.

Statistics on ocean burials of intact, or "casketed" remains are hard to come by.

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