By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009
In April 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood on the heights outside Arlington House, gazed across the vast cemetery below, the grand monuments of Washington in the distance, and said the spot was so beautiful he could live there the rest of his life.
Seven months later, after the tragedy of his assassination, he was buried just down the grassy hill from where he spoke that day. Five years after that, his brother Robert, also an assassin's victim, was laid to rest 100 feet away.
On Saturday, their brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is to be buried beside them -- on the hill once revered for its vistas, now hallowed by the graves of the three Kennedys.
On Friday, a tiny wooden stake, spray-painted white, marked the spot between two maple trees 100 feet south of Robert Kennedy's grave where the senator is to be buried about 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
It is just down the gentle slope from the tan stucco columns of Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee, son of another famed American family. The spot still commands perhaps the finest view of the capital anywhere.
As a boyish senator, Edward, the youngest Kennedy son, had stood not far from the grave site on a crisp autumn day as President Kennedy was laid to rest in 1963, then again on a spring night in June 1968 when Robert Kennedy was buried nearby in a ceremony illuminated by floodlights and candles.
In the decades since, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts was a haunting visitor to the cemetery, often showing up unannounced to visit his brothers' graves -- President Kennedy's marked with an eternal flame, Robert Kennedy's by a decorative fountain.
"Often times he would just be here," cemetery Superintendent John Metzler Jr. said Friday as he stood by the grave site. "We would not know about it [in advance]. Other times he would call and schedule."
"At least six times a year he would be here visiting his brothers' graves . . . [including] on their anniversaries," Metzler said. He visited on other occasions "just by himself."
"You could just tell -- by the time that he spent here -- that this was a very special place for him," Metzler said. "He felt very comfortable here. . . . He liked to be by himself."
"It's quite a legacy here for the Kennedys," Metzler said, "and for myself."
His father was cemetery superintendent from 1951 to 1972, and Metzler remembers as a teenager standing in the crowd with his mother watching President Kennedy's burial. He said he was serving in the Army in Vietnam when Robert Kennedy died.
Edward Kennedy last visited Arlington in June 2008 on the anniversary of Robert's death, cemetery historian Tom Sherlock said. Many members of the Kennedy family were there. "They came, they visited the grave site," he said. Prayers were said and flowers placed. "They were probably with us for about an hour. Peaceful time. Then [they] quietly left."
Sherlock spoke of President Kennedy's visit in 1963. It was "one of those moments in history that foreshadows a great event to come, perhaps," he said. It was "certainly a way of almost selecting his grave site, his resting place, at Arlington and in a way selecting the grave sites of both of his brothers as well."
The senator's remains are to be taken to Arlington from Andrews Air Force Base, with a stop at the Capitol, followed by the same final journey his brothers took: past the Lincoln Memorial and over the arc of Memorial Bridge to the black-and-gold gates of the cemetery.