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  • Kennedy, Bessettes Given Shipboard Rites

    The USS Briscoe waits for the arrival of the Kennedy and Bessette families for the sea burial of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette. (AP)
    By Barton Gellman and Pamela Ferdinand
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, July 23, 1999; Page A1

    MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass., July 22 In an ancient naval ritual adapted to private grief, the Kennedys and Bessettes entombed three loved ones today in the plot of sea that swallowed their fallen aircraft six nights ago.

    From the fantail of the destroyer USS Briscoe, anchored between Martha's Vineyard and the Kennedy clan's redoubt at Hyannis Port, an officer in dress whites carried three brass urns of ashes, one by one, down a ladder to the wind-chopped water line. There on a small steel platform, their next of kin scattered the ashes of John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette; and her sister Lauren Bessette into the waves.

    "We commit their elements to the deep, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return, but the Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory, for He is risen the first-born from the dead," a Navy chaplain prayed, one of five clergymen who took part in the shipboard service. "So let us commend our brother and sisters to the Lord, that the Lord may embrace them in peace and raise them up on the last day."

    No honor guard fired a three-volley salute, and no bugler played "Taps," as Navy procedure would dictate in a military funeral. The Navy's permission for burial at sea, granted after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) requested it Tuesday from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, came under a provision entitling nonveterans who have made notable or outstanding contributions to the United States.

    "Clearly we felt that John Kennedy Jr.'s contributions were both notable and outstanding," said Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky, the Navy's chief spokesman. "He's obviously spent much of his life working for the disabled and underprivileged. He headed up a nonprofit group providing opportunities for people with disabilities. And he was the son of a former president of the United States, who himself was a World War II hero."

    The choice of venue arose in part from the dead trio's long delight in the local waters, which link the mainland to the private beach property that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis left her son at Martha's Vineyard's Squibnocket Pond. The two families asked that the Briscoe, officials said, steam as close as possible to the spot from which the three bodies and some of the wreckage were pulled Wednesday afternoon.

    Perhaps the larger motivation, associates said, was practical. Burial at sea, behind a Navy and Coast Guard picket that kept aircraft and chartered tugs at some remove, afforded what privacy the famous can find in the age of the satellite and telephoto lens.

    Only 17 relatives including Sen. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Richard and Ann Freeman and Lisa Bessette put aboard the Briscoe at 9:00 this morning, along with a priest identified by the Cape Cod Times as the Rev. Charles J. O'Byrne, who married John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette. Network cameras tracked the 9,200-ton destroyer from port at Woods Hole and then from the island coast where parts of Kennedy's shattered airplane had washed ashore. All they could see, for hours, was a warship's stately procession toward the horizon.

    NBC's broadcast overlaid that image with the eerily evocative voice of the dead man's slain father, recorded as then-President Kennedy toasted the America's Cup racing crews on Sept. 14, 1962: "It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came."

    In New York, with another invitation-only service set for Friday, the city's Irish Catholic community held a public mass this evening for the three. Thousands of mourners gathered for Irish hymns and eulogies at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in lower Manhattan.

    President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton announced plans to attend the private Friday memorial at the St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church. They invited Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her husband to accompany them there aboard Air Force One.

    Preliminary autopsy results, summarized for reporters, found the three travelers died instantly of multiple trauma when their Piper Saratoga struck the water after descending at a rate of more than 5,000 feet per minute. That rate, combined with the plane's forward speed, would make the ocean as unyielding as concrete.

    Divers said the single-engine craft sprawled in pieces on the seabed, 116 feet down, its engine and wings sheared off and passenger compartment broken apart.

    Sources close to the investigation said investigators found no apparent defects in their initial examination of the fuselage, the engine and the propellers in a closed hangar at Otis Air National Guard Base. But they cautioned that weeks of detail work lie ahead before they can rule out structural or mechanical causes.

    The sources said most, if not all, of the aircraft appears to have been located in the debris field where the fuselage and the bodies were found still strapped in their seats. That includes the wings, the tail section, the engine and the propeller. One of the three metal prop blades was broken off but was near the rest of the prop, indicating it broke on impact with the water or the ocean floor and not in flight.

    A number of cockpit navigational instruments were recovered, and may provide valuable clues, the sources said.

    If no mechanical or structural defects are found, investigators will be left with the likelihood that Kennedy lost his bearings, and then control of the plane, while flying over a dark ocean in thick haze. Hundreds of pilots have died in similar conditions, without visual cues to up and down.

    Dozens of local residents and tourists in shorts and T-shirts lined the narrow streets and bridges of Woods Hole to catch a glimpse of the motorcade as it pulled into the harbor on a windy and overcast day. Like the Kennedys, who have not shed public tears, the people gathered here to remember, not to weep.

    Jim Merageas, 62, said this was the first time in days he had managed to pull himself away from the drama unfolding on his television set in a nearby vacation home.

    "What did they do to deserve this. . . . I don't think any of us will come up with an answer," Merageas said from his perch along the two-lane road crowded with news crews overlooking the harbor. "When we got up this morning and they said what was going on, I said, 'Hey, let's see it. We can get down there and really see it for ourselves.' "

    Family members seen embarking the Coast Guard cutter Sanibel included Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her husband, Edwin, holding hands; Sen. Kennedy and his two sons; Maria Shriver; and William Kennedy Smith. They were joined by Lisa Ann Bessette, Lauren's twin sister; her mother, Ann Freeman; and stepfather Richard Freeman. All were dressed in black. The senator waved to a pair of onlookers as if to either acknowledge their presence or kindly shoo them away, but family members otherwise maintained their silence as state police officers guarded the entrance to the dock and buoys clanged in the distance.

    Family members' main concern is keeping the youngest children out of the loop of sadness, and any discussions of the tragedy are usually reserved for after the children have gone to bed, a source close to the family said. "You wouldn't believe how quiet it is in the compound, except for the children," the source said. "The tears they shed, they shed alone."

    Four Navy chaplains and Father O'Byrne all Roman Catholic presided over a mariners' service. It lasted 35 minutes.

    While cremation and burial at sea are not the usual Catholic funeral practices, the church lifted its absolute ban in 1963. Cremation was once thought by the church to deny Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day. The church expects cremated remains to be treated much like a whole body, and frowns on the scattering of ashes.

    The family chose to do so anyway. As they did a brass quintet from the Newport Naval Base played Christian hymns, in place of the military "Taps." There were no words, but one participant said the words were well known to the two families of observant Catholics. "Abide with me," went one of the hymns, "fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comfort flee, help of the helpless, o abide with me."

    Ferdinand reported from Martha's Vineyard. Staff writers Don Phillips, Hanna Rosin and Bradley Graham in Washington and researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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