Family, nation bid farewell to JFK Jr.

Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law are buried at sea

John F. Kennedy Jr. -- 1969-1999

July 23, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WOODS HOLE, Mass. -- The family of John F. Kennedy Jr. gathered yesterday on seas that shone like glitter, committing his ashes to the deep of the choppy Atlantic Ocean while praying for his soul.

In a Roman Catholic burial at sea in keeping with Kennedy's wishes, patriarch Sen. Edward M. Kennedy joined about 15 other family members to release his nephew's remains, along with those of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

After a public memorial service last night in New York, a private Mass is scheduled for today in New York for Kennedy and his wife. Another is to be held tomorrow in Greenwich, Conn., for Lauren Bessette.

The three were killed instantly Friday, the Massachusetts medical examiner said yesterday, when the plane that Kennedy was piloting to Martha's Vineyard crashed into the Atlantic.

About 9 a.m. yesterday, just across the water from the island, a caravan of about a dozen cars carrying the Kennedy and Bessette families arrived at the picturesque Cape Cod fishing village of Woods Hole.

In the group, dressed all in black, was Kennedy's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the last living member of the immediate family that occupied the White House from 1961 to 1963.

In addition to her uncle, she was joined by her cousins, William Kennedy Smith and Maria Shriver; as well as Ann Freeman, the mother of the Bessette sisters; their stepfather, Dr. Richard Freeman; and Lauren Bessette's twin sister, Lisa Ann Bessette.

A crowd of mourners and curious was on hand to meet the families at the docks where they would depart for the service. Some in the crowd held flowers; others held signs.

Read one, flashed to the motorcade as it drove by: "We are praying for you."

The Coast Guard cutter Sanibel ferried the families to the Navy's USS Briscoe, which had arrived Wednesday night from Virginia at the direction of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. The ship carried three folded American flags and three wreaths with red, yellow and white flowers.

With the families aboard, the Briscoe cut slowly through the water toward the site where Kennedy's plane crashed, about seven miles from the westernmost end of Martha's Vineyard.

Helicopters and planes were not allowed within five miles of the ship, in an effort to make the burial as private as possible.

The Briscoe paused for about a half-hour at the crash site, presumably for services. On the shore, at the foot of the great red and blond cliffs of Gay Head, was a four-foot-high cross of driftwood.

On the bluffs above, which rise about 300 feet above the beach, a somber and nearly silent crowd gathered and looked to the water as the Briscoe passed by.

"I think the whole event is sad but it's beautiful," said Rhenda Brodnax, 50, who was visiting the island from Palm Coast, Fla. "I have a lot of sympathy for the family -- any family that has to endure this much tragedy. God's will be done, and let our faith get everyone through this situation."

Kennedy once referred to himself as a "struggling Catholic," but the ceremony, though at sea, was shaped by the rituals his family has relied on time and again.

Pentagon officials said the ceremony at sea included a Catholic priest, a Catholic Navy chaplain and Rear Adm. Barry Black, the Navy's deputy chief of chaplains.

As they prayed, so too did crew members aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, off the coast of Virginia.

"Today we commend our brother John F. Kennedy Jr. and our sisters Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette, who were taken from us suddenly and tragically," said the Rev. Sal Aguilera. "Look gently upon them, oh Lord, as we now entrust their souls to your refuge and your strength. Eternal rest grant unto them, oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them."

Kennedy, 38, was flying his wife, 33, and sister-in-law, 34, from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard on a night in which the horizon and lights of the island were obscured by darkness and a heavy, steamy haze. Their bodies were recovered Wednesday, autopsied that evening, then cremated and returned to their families for yesterday's ceremony.

Investigators say Kennedy's plane was plummeting more than 5,000 feet per minute when it slammed into the same waters he once sailed and where his ashes were spread yesterday.

For generations, the family has been drawn to the sea. Joseph P. Kennedy bought a summer home in the coastal town of Hyannis Port in the 1920s, and family members have been flocking to the three-house compound ever since.

The compound was Kennedy's destination. He planned to drop off Lauren Bessette in Martha's Vineyard, then to continue with his wife to Hyannis Port for the wedding of his cousin, Rory.

`Salt in our blood'

Yesterday, words that President John F. Kennedy spoke in 1962 echoed as his son was buried.

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