HOUSTON -- The eternal flame that burns at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of slain President John F. Kennedy is a newer version of a simple natural gas-fed mechanism that now sits in an unusual Houston museum.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy requested an eternal flame at her husband’s grave just 24 hours before the burial on November 25, 1963. The assignment fell to a group of Army engineers who hastily constructed a flame out of a tiki torch and buried it in the ground. Jacqueline Kennedy lit the flame with a long wire that held a kerosene-soaked rag on the end.
Bill Morris, one of the original Army personnel assigned to guard the eternal flame, told CBS Sunday Morning that the flame wasn’t necessarily “eternal.”
"If you were assigned to the eternal flame you had to have a lighter in your pocket. Every time the wind blew it went out,” said Morris.
The flame was also famously extinguished early in its history by a nun who used too much holy water to consecrate the burial site.
But along Houston's North Freeway, if you follow the signs that point to a funeral museum, you can find what made the flame eternal after all.
The National Funeral History Museum, founded in 1992, is a collection of artifacts, coffins, funeral vehicles, and other exhibits intended to “enlighten visitors on one of mans’ oldest cultural rituals and celebrate the rich history of funeral service.”
And in a corner of the museum dedicated to preserving the funeral history of U.S. Presidents, sits a slightly charred metal object - roughly the size of a softball - that kept the eternal flame burning for more than 30 years.
“Because they were having trouble keeping it lit that's when this one was designed,” said Christopher Layton who teaches funeral history at the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service adjacent to the museum.
The mechanism, fed by a constant stream of natural gas, burned at Arlington National Cemetery from 1967 to 1998. It was designed to re-light itself if the flame ever went out. A modern version installed at the cemetery just this last spring follows the same design. The eternal flame on display here in Houston is on loan to the National Museum of Funeral History from Arlington National Cemetery and Layton says the museum is honored to be trusted with its care.
"The death of a president, everybody if you were alive remembers exactly where you were when you found out about it,” said Layton who vividly remembers the day as a 6-year-old child.
"I think it is such an honor for us that Arlington would let us have this.”
In Houston, on display with other presidential memorabilia including a life-size re-creation of the casket that held Abraham Lincoln, the eternal flame in retirement only holds a light bulb now. But Layton says visitors to the museum should not be dissuaded by what some might see as the morbid nature of a museum like this. He says the eternal flame is a unique and important part of American history.
"It does give you a chance to just pause and think about these things and also to, still after 50 years, pay your respects. Because that was a day that changed America."
A day that changed America … eternally.