Breaking and Crumbling from the 17th Floor

A Wearied Sleep

As the story goes, when Fleetwood Lindsey of Springfield, Illinois, died in 1963, he was the last living person to have seen Abraham Lincoln’s remains. That was in 1901, when Fleetwood Lindsey was only thirteen years old. There had been several attempts to steal the president’s body for ransom and Robert Lincoln, the sole survivor, decided it was best to encase the casket ten feet deep under a metal cage and a layer of concrete, making it forever impossible to reach. After some debate, it was decided that the remains should be checked before the casket was permanently entombed. There were still rumors and claims that Lincoln’s body had vanished long ago. So on September 26, 1901, Leon Hawkins, a plumber, along with his cousin, Charles Willey, was charged with opening the casket in front of twenty-three witnesses. Fleetwood Lindsey’s father, who understood the historic significance, had pulled his son out of school for the occasion. There they stood before the pine casket, in a room with the windows papered shut, while Hawkins and Willey knocked their crowbars against the floor, testing their strength before going to work. When the upper part of the casket was opened, Fleetwood Lindsey remembered being sickened by the smell. But once he gathered the courage to look, Fleetwood Lindsey couldn’t stop staring at the corpse. The brown complexion, pasted white by the undertaker’s chalk. Lincoln’s trademark beard was still intact, the whiskers poking out from the chin. The familiar mole in place. Instantly recognizable. The only noticeable change was that the president’s eyebrows seemed to have disappeared. But most memorable to Fleetwood Lindsey was Lincoln’s melancholy air, which seemed to suggest a wearied sleep. Somehow he’d expected to see an expression of shock from the surprise of a bullet going through the brain.


At about 5:00 p.m. the ambulance left Andrews Air Force base, headed for the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The sirens were screaming. Lights blazing. Along with the president’s remains, the car ferried Jackie, Bobby Kennedy, and the president’s physician, Admiral George Burkley, who had been in the second car in Dallas. Off in another direction, a man was dispatched to the White House to bring back one of Jack’s suits and a pair of shoes. He told himself to remember to make sure the shoes were polished. President Kennedy wouldn’t accept anything less.

It’s Mandatory

The issue of the autopsy had come up while Air Force One had been in flight, somewhere between the swearing-in and the planning of the funeral. Jackie is sitting by the side of the coffin, her voice just above a murmur. Maybe she’s humming, it’s a long and slow melodious howl that vibrates from her chest. She’s been trying to think, not about anything in particular, just think, wanting to organize a thought in order to find some footing. The rumble of the airplane unsettles her, but she tries not to think of that. The physics of flight requires too much trust.

She pretends not to see Pam and Kenny come into the room. They won’t leave. Kenny puts two fingers on her shoulder. She thinks they might break right through her bones. He says that Dr. Burkley needs to speak with her, and she turns around, about to say, It takes two of you to tell me? But she nods, seeing the White House physician waiting in the doorway.

"Mrs. Kennedy," Burkley says. "I’m sorry to bother you at such a time." He glances down for a moment, but then raises his stare, drawing it right into her eyes. "I don’t know how to be anything but frank here." He pauses. Looking for her response.

She nods. Her whole world is now frank.

"We’re going to have to do an autopsy," he says. "When we get back to Washington."

She shakes her head. "That won’t be necessary." 

"I’m afraid it’s mandatory." 

"Well, I say it doesn’t have to be done."

"It’s mandatory," he repeats and looks up at Pam and Kenny as though for assistance. As though she is too dumbstruck to notice.

"I don’t know," she says. "I don’t know." 

"We can do it at Walter Reed. Or Bethesda … "

"Kenny … "

"Even a private hospital, I suppose." 

"Kenny, tell him no." 

"I’ll supervise the whole procedure, if you’d like. Take care of all the arrangements."

"I don’t know."

"I do have to be honest, Mrs. Kennedy. I believe the procedure should be done at a military hospital. President Kennedy is the commander-in-chief, so I think it makes most sense, regarding personnel, security, and clearances. Again, I’m sorry for the frankness. But it is mandatory."

She tries to protest one more time, picturing those stories about how an Indian could rip out your heart so fast that you could still see it beating outside your body, but Dr. Burkley keeps repeating that It’s mandatory, it’s mandatory, it’s mandatory, and neither Kenny nor Pam seems willing to contradict this, until she can’t stand to hear it’s mandatory one more time, and finally says, Okay, then do it at Bethesda, and before she’s finished speaking she feels like that ripped-out heart, thumping on its own, looking back at a body so alive it doesn’t know it’s dying.

The Memory of the Lens (Pt. 1)

There is clotted blood on the external ears but otherwise the ears, nose, and mouth are essentially unremarkable. The teeth are in excellent repair and there is some pallor of the oral mucus membrane. (Pathological Examination Report, 11/22/63, p. 3)

It’s one of the photos of the autopsy. His head. Photographed from the neck up, with just a trace of his shoulders and chest, enough so that you can tell he’s undressed. It’s a simple picture, one snapped by medical photographer John Stringer on a 4x5 Graphic camera. But what’s so amazing about the picture is how dead Kennedy looks. And it’s not Hollywood dead, with passively closed eyes and a nodding head that suggest the sleep of the just. In the photo, his head is tilted back, eyes wide open, his mouth ajar, without any sense that he’s ever lived. A tracheotomy pokes out of his throat, as though his survival had just been a matter of extra air. His teeth look a little bucked, and you can stare and stare and stare at it, noting how the tiles in the door frame the definition of his collarbone and the tufts of chest hair. There certainly are characteristics of the Kennedy you’ve come to recognize, but when pressed you’d have to admit that you’ve never seen anyone look so dead before.

Of course, there was Dan’s father, a big Italian-American you barely knew while in college, who was intimidating in his silence, yet died suddenly and weakly from a heart attack. You went to the funeral because all of Dan’s friends were going to the funeral. You’d never seen a dead body before. It was an open casket, and it felt as though you stared harder and longer than anyone else, because you couldn’t get over how different he looked, his face made up and shaded orange, thinner than normal, as though a lesser artist had crafted him from wax. Within the year you would attend two more funerals, but both with closed caskets. In the case of Mary it was because she’d died from her own shotgun blast in her bedroom, surrounded by notes and disappointments and teddy bears. And in the case of your grandmother it was from the disfigurement of the auto accident (although they did hold a viewing, but, remembering Dan’s father, you elected not to go, too afraid that the distorted image of the repaired face would become the everlasting memory).

It all makes you think of souls. Though you make no claims to belief, seeing that picture of Kennedy suggests that there must be more to the body than hardwiring and chemical messengers that trick the body into being, because even a piece of machinery stripped of his functioning parts still looks like the machine. Perhaps it’s just back to Descartes’ earthen machine. Or Thomas Aquinas’s reconciliation of the eternal soul with Aristotle’s intellective soul. Or maybe it’s all just smoke and mirrors, a hypnotist’s whisper that makes you believe that there’s something more than parts and components. Maybe when the body dies, the hypnotist’s fingers are snapped, and we stop barking like dogs, and look around, suddenly recognizing the machinery. Maybe we even laugh a little at ourselves.

The complexity of these fractures and the fragments thus produced tax satisfactory verbal description and are better appreciated in photographs and roentgenograms which are prepared. (Pathological Examination Report, 11/22/63, p. 4)

The medical photographer, John Stringer, is waiting in the morgue for his subject. FBI and Secret Service stand around in civilian clothes. The three doctors in charge, Boswell, Humes, and Finck, also are waiting, silent, reorganizing their tools and equipment over and over. Others start to trickle into the room. Dr. Burkley lingers in between, looking uncertain of his responsibility as an observer. One of Stringer’s students, Floyd Riebe, leans into the corner of the room, clutching a small 35 mm Canon under his arm. He’s here to assist. But mostly it seems as though he’ll observe. 

A sign is taped to the wall. Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae. "This is the place where death rejoices to help those who live." 

Stringer clamps the camera down on the three-wheeled tripod. The 4x5 Graphic is as heavy as can be. He snaps on the giant flash, thinking this might be the last time he has to use the camera because the commanding officer won’t let him buy any more 4x5 film since he’s agreed to convert the whole operation to 35 millimeter. Morgue lighting is always ridiculous, fluorescents and an operating lamp that won’t allow for the most basic exposure. So he has to set up two speed lamps, mounting them on stands with rollers, double-checking the synchronization to make sure they’ll flash with the camera. Maybe that will also change with the upgrade.

The casket is wheeled in and then opened. He watches the hinges. The body is wrapped in hospital sheets inside a body bag. Towels are padded around his head. The room smells rotten, slightly tempered by the sterility of the alcohol and rubber gloves. The civilians step forward a little out of curiosity but then step back as quickly. Kennedy’s eyes are wide open. The doctors shut them. But they pop open again.

Stringer returns to setting up his equipment. Somehow he’d been anticipating something more.

X-rays are taken. The machine sounds like rocks and gravel. A construction site. Kennedy. A wicked little scrawl that seems too impersonal to not be real. Too real, in fact.

Stringer supposes he could fall apart and cry, collapse, become undone, and blame it on the exhaustion of the day. But instead he continues to break down his equipment. Leaving the wing nuts loosened on the speed lamps. Knowing he’ll need to set them all up again in a week or so, when the team reconvenes to finish up with the dissection of the brain.

In addition, it is our opinion that the wound of the skull produced such extensive damage to the brain as to preclude the possibility of the deceased surviving this injury. (Pathological Examination Report, 11/22/63, p. 6)

Still you look at the picture longer and longer. Wanting to see something. A glimpse. A fraction of something familiar. Maybe if his expression looked a little more shocked. A little more dismayed and terrorized. But he’s just so vacant. Eyes staring up dumbly, the pupils dilated, with a dulled milky film. And you wonder how he could have absorbed so much shock and trauma, and come out like this, almost lamely passive. The pathologists maintain that the body is the record. And, from a scientific perspective, they’re probably right. But in the photograph he’s just a body. It’s only memories that will bring him to life.

In the photograph, he just looks so dead.

The 17th Floor

On the 17th floor of the medical towers at the Naval Medical Center, they are gathered while the autopsy is being conducted in the morgue below. Jackie. Bobby. Close friends. Aides. Family members. The Secret Service has sealed off the floor. Special phone lines have been set up with direct communications to the White House and to the morgue.

Jackie is becoming more and more anxious. Disoriented. Like a sleepwalker who’s been awakened. Instinctively, she works the room. All manners. Automated graces. She appears perfectly natural, as long as her vacant eyes are avoided and her bloodied dress is ignored.

For a moment she pauses to stare out the window. Looking down on the city. It’s dark and it’s late, but not as late as it looks. A few headlights trickle down the streets, distinct and cutting. She can see houses still lit with television sets. Little ghostly glows that radiate from each one. She wishes for nothing more than to be in one of those bungalows, sitting on the couch with dessert on her lap, still too upset to eat, watching the television and pitying the misfortune of someone else’s life.

Bobby touches her hand. She startles. "I’ve just spoken with Dr. Burkley downstairs," he says. "I told him, about this procedure. How it’s all taking much too long."

"What did he say?"

"He says he can’t control the procedure. It’s all law. That it’s mandatory. Imagine. He’s telling me about the law."

She whispers back, "I told you." In his eyes she sees total devastation. He looks more broken than she feels, which is somehow logical since she’s not feeling much of anything at all, as if her nerves have been surgically removed. Still, seeing him makes her wonder if she’s a little less capable of grief.

Bobby shakes his head. "I don’t see the point of all this."

"I don’t know." 

"Maybe I’ll just go down there, myself. Make them stop this nonsense."

"Maybe you should." 

She watches him slip out the door, mumbling something to the military guard. The suite is filled to capacity. Quiet. People speak in whispers. Still, her head is banging, and she wants to put her hands over her ears. Medications don’t work. A hundred milligrams of Visatril, shot right into the arm in the corner of the room by her own doctor, has had no effect. She just might explode, if not for manners.

Ben and Tony Bradlee make their way to her. Tony says she’s so sorry, and if there’s anything, they are always there. Ben reaches out for Jackie’s arm, but hesitates, noticing the caked blood that dots her forearm.

She looks at him, managing to hold her stare for a moment. They were at the White House earlier. She hopes they don’t bring the children up. She barely can manage as it is. Even the mention will undo her. She needs to be talking. Taking control. Believing there are no ripples beyond this suite. "Do you want to know what happened?" she asks. "Do you want to know?"

Ben stutters a bit. Looks to Tony. Composes himself in politeness. "Of course," he says. "Of course."

She begins, "It was out of nowhere," but then stops herself. Her tone deepens. If for only a split second, she sounds completely lucid. "This is all off the record. You know that, all off the record."

Ben nods, looking a little hurt. But these things have to be said, even among friends. "I don’t know," she begins. "The weather wasn’t what anybody expected. And maybe we should’ve been thinking the worst, but we weren’t … Excuse me for a moment."

She’s barely down Elm Street before the first interruption. Kenny with something from the White House. The Bradlees wait patiently, until she picks up the story again. Then it’s Larry breaking in about funeral arrangements. McNamara with the burial site. Her aides trying to get her to change her clothes.

A moment before the shots are about to be fired, Bobby comes back into the room and apologizes to the Bradlees. He needs to talk with Jackie. Pulling her to the side, he looks flustered, eyes darting, his hands balled into fists. Although his voice remains steady, he can barely speak. "I don’t know what’s going on down there," he says. "They’re just going and going. It’s as though those doctors don’t know the difference between a forensic autopsy and a regular hospital pathological autopsy." He uses the medical terms awkwardly, as though he’s just learned them.

“You’re the Attorney General." 

"Jackie, they don’t care what we have to say." 

"Maybe I should call, Bobby. Do you think I should call down there, Bobby?" 

"They’re not listening." 

"I can call." 

"No one listens. I’ve never seen anything so … " 

They pause. Out the corner of her eye, she sees the Bradlees still standing, looking unsure if they should wait for her to return with the end of the story. She tries to nod, or give some gesture that indicates she’s finished. It’s probably better to stop the story in the middle.

Bobby says he’s worried a pathological autopsy will bring other things up. And she asks, "Other things?" and he says, "Yes. You know."

She looks quizzically.

"His health. All the medications. We don’t need that." 

"No, we don’t need that." 

"People have worked too hard to distort his image as it is and we certainly don’t need to help them. That’s what I’m trying to tell those doctors. especially Burkley. You don’t need to go in to his glands. Don’t need to list all the medications. You just need to understand the patterns of the wounds."

"Maybe I should try, Bobby."

"I’m telling you, they don’t listen. They don’t care what they reveal."

She doesn’t push it, because although she understands the implications, and that there will be handfuls of people poring over the reports in order to find something to tear down Jack’s image and reveal him as some kind of weakened poseur, that’s really not the most distressing thing. It is the pure and simple fact that three men are dissecting Jack’s body. And that he lies prone on a table, fully exposed, with his organs being weighed, as bureaucrats make notes on him as though he were a specimen.

"I don’t know what to do, Bobby."

"Maybe I’ll go down there again."

"I’ll go with you."

"That’s not a good idea. Believe me."

"There are none."

"None what?"

"Good ideas."

Bobby stops himself. His leg is trembling. He breathes so hard through his nose that it whistles and, although he looks at her when he talks, he can’t seem to hold the stare. "I’ll call first," he says. "And then I’ll look into Arlington, as a possibility." With that his voice buckles and she can see his words literally swallowed, sickening his stomach on the way down. "I’ll call," he says. "I’ll let you know what I hear from the call."

She looks back once to the Bradlees, but they are now sitting on folding chairs, postures a little slumped, shaking their heads in conversation with Larry O’Brien. She takes the opportunity to go back to the window and look out over the cityscape.

A wood thrush wings by, alone and oddly confused by the altitude. She watches it circle down toward land, settling on a naked tree, bending the edge of the bough slightly down and riding it with the breeze. The bird is motionless but still manages to bounce the tree. And she starts thinking about an obscure fact she’d once read about the Australian apostle bird, so named because it travels in groups of twelve. This story told of three baby apostle birds that found themselves accidentally on the ground, stunned with helplessness, while the safety of their nest waited about forty feet above them. Then a whole caboodle of grown-up apostle birds surrounded the three babies, pushing at them, trying to get them to fly, encouraging them to get back to the nest. Two of the babies tried and tried and soon enough they were off and flying. The third couldn’t get it. For three days the group of adults came back, trying to cajole the last baby bird into flying. On the third day, when it must have become clear that the bird just didn’t understand or was refusing for some unknown reason, the adults lifted into the air in resigned grace and defeat and then, in perfect precision, fell in unison onto the third baby and killed him.

The Memory of the Lens (Pt. 2)

Floyd Riebe hadn’t heard of John Stringer before studying with him at the Naval Medical School. But once he was there, Floyd learned that Stringer had one of the best reputations in the business as a medical photographer. Floyd, a hospital corpsman, joined Stringer’s class in March and by November was eager to graduate. He’d already witnessed three or four autopsies, helping out as an assistant. Watching how to set the lighting. To move with the doctors. He liked the precision of the work. The accuracy it commanded. In a matter of months he could strike out on his own. Get rid of those giant 4x5 Graphic cameras that seemed rooted in another era, and rely on the quicker, more modern Canon 35 mm.

On November 22, Floyd was on evening duty when a Washington Post reporter called, trying to broker a deal for prints or negatives. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," Floyd said. "Prints and negatives for what?"

"The autopsy," the reporter replied. "You know it’s going to be in Bethesda. I’m just looking for an exclusive. Everybody wants answers. Help me out, here."

"Well, this is news to me. But even if … "

"It’s in the public interest. I’d really appreciate whatever you … "

"I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to tell you." 

Floyd went back to the television, looking for the latest updates. Along with everyone else, he’d been watching the news all day long. That was as close as he was to knowing anything there was to know.

An hour later the chief of the day sent word that everybody should be prepared and on alert. Kennedy’s remains were en route to the hospital. Floyd called Stringer, who said he was on the way. Since the hospital would not be letting anybody in or out, Floyd was charged with waiting at the front entrance in order to confirm that Stringer was who he claimed to be and that he was needed inside the building.

Floyd was ashamed to admit that he felt pretty excited.

In the crowded morgue, Floyd hid in the corner. He was waiting. His skin buzzing electric. He held on to the Canon. Ran the focus in and out.

After setting up his equipment, Stringer walked back, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall. Asked Floyd how he was doing, now that he’d hit the big time. If he was prepared. Ready to witness this. "Strange thing how the events on the TV seemed to be taking place in another world," he said, "yet just like that we’re in that world. Like we’ve entered into the TV."

"Amazing thing," Floyd said. "Does make you a little jittery." Stringer leaned in closer, drawing his voice down to a whisper. "You have film in that camera? In the Canon."

Floyd nodded.

"And extras in your pocket? Because if you don’t have extras in your pocket, I want you to run down to the office and load up."

"I’ve got another roll. Maybe two."

"That’s good. Good." 

"You want me to shoot alongside you, or something?" 

Stringer slid over tighter. "This is an occasion," he said. 

"An occasion?" 

"An occasion. You should be shooting the whole room. Documenting it. Recreating the atmosphere."

"That’s not too general?" 

"It’s as important to understanding the whole story."

"You think so?"

"That’s why you became a photographer, isn’t it? To document the story, yes? Well, this is history, Mr. Riebe, and you’re in the middle of it. With a camera … An occasion, Mr. Riebe. An occasion."

Floyd patted the spare roll in his pocket. "You think it’s okay? I guess I’m still not sure why I’d bother."

"It’s your obligation."

The gurney rolled in, its black wheels wobbling and shaking under the weight of the bronze casket. Nobody talked. A tech named O’Conner unzipped the body bag down the middle, stinking up the place to high heaven. He peeled the plastic back, while two other men came around to help.

Kennedy’s body on the table was anticlimactic. Lying there naked and stiff, the towels off his head, Kennedy looked no different than the other bodies Floyd had seen. Pale stupid expressions. Everyman body scars. Clumsy stiffened postures, with their heads awkwardly cradled in a stainless steel stirrup. No different than the young man who’d died in the tanker accident earlier in the year. Or the old admiral who keeled over into his cereal bowl. And while this should have come as a relief, Floyd felt disappointed.

Stringer was already at the camera, snapping some photos, rolling the lights, while the doctors made general notes and prepared for the X-rays. He looked back once, nodding for Floyd to get going.

Looking around the room, Floyd made sure no one was paying attention to him. He worked his way three or four steps behind Stringer, who was already circling around the doctors, and took in a deep breath. One agent even got out of his way, apologizing with the sidestep. He snapped a couple of pictures in the general direction of the autopsy table, capturing both Springer and the doctors. It seemed a little vague. With all due respect to his teacher, Floyd preferred the absolute. It seemed like direct shots of the body were the best document. Not the atmosphere. Still, he figured he’d try. Stringer supposedly was the best.

He was able to get a quick series off of Kennedy’s body. From the unorthodox angle and positioning, Kennedy looked as though he lay alone in the room, disoriented. Then people started to lean over. Interact with the corpse. The movement started to excite the scene. Create a narrative. Floyd had to admit it was nice being freed from the doctors’ procedures. He broke away from Stringer. Turning slightly, he felt the motion of the room around him. As though he were part of a film, rolling from frame to frame. more and more he found himself lost to the lens. Watching the events unfold one shutter click at a time. For once, within the experience while capturing the experience.

There were so many telling expressions. The staid but uncomfortable mien of one of the agents. Dr. Humes’s eyebrows wrinkling, as he turned around to respond to Dr. Burkley. The nurses standing a step behind. The political aides conferring with the doctors. One shot captured Bobby Kennedy’s shoulder as he leaned anxiously through the double doors, looking for somebody.

Floyd focused on one particular Secret Service agent, catching the exact moment when he glanced at Kennedy’s skull, swallowing, his eyes fixed to side, wearied, and maybe for the first time heartbroken at his failure to protect. And just as Floyd snapped the picture, the agent glared right at him. Face tightening. Lips pursed. He walked over and grabbed the Canon. Popped open the back like he’d read the owner’s manual and stripped the film out the back, holding it up to the light, as though he enjoyed watching it expose. It ended that quickly.

Floyd Riebe had been trained to be loyal only to facts. And he’d embraced that. Maybe too well. Stringer knew. Understood. Maybe that’s why he’d told him to document the occasion. To learn to find the artfulness. See beyond the objective eye. But it wasn’t his way. Wasn’t right. It was only a seduction.

Forget art. 

Fuck artfulness.

Floyd had confined everything he’d just witnessed to the destroyed film, and without it Floyd knew nothing. He felt helpless. Part of an occasion in which he had no memories.

Pushing himself through the crowd, Floyd backed himself up into the corner. He looked at Stringer, but the big man didn’t notice. He watched over the room, reciting the scene to himself. Lips moving, but not speaking aloud, he narrated the precise details. Cataloging the movements of the doctors. The amount of film cassettes used. The order of things. At some point he knew he’d be asked about the experience, and he knew that on some level he would make a story about it (how could he not?), but he wanted to be sure that the story was accurate, the details precise, and that any discrepancies were technical and not interpretive. He said them over and over to himself, reversing the order when needed, blinking his eyes as though developing and fixing them to his memory, knowing that he’d never take another photo for art’s sake, believing the bureaucrat’s creed that the details are grounded in the world of absolutes.

The Burial Site


The word is Boston. But no one thinks much of it. Even if it did make sense, it’s only making sense out of convenience. The inner circle is asking around. Straw polls on the 17th floor of the Naval Medical Center. They ask Ben Bradlee. He’s a Bostonian. What does he think of it for the gravesite? Of Boston. Brookline, where the family plot is. Maybe Cape Cod. He shrugs and says he doesn’t like either. But it’s only knee-jerk reacting. How could he have thought about it? Who could be giving this any serious thought right now? At least other than those who have to.


And does it matter that the lineage was to Martha Washington and not to George? Does it help that George Washington always thought of George Washington Parke Custis as his own, even though he was born to Martha’s son from a previous marriage? That Washington adopted the boy when the father died from camp fever during the Battle of Yorktown? That there was so much Washington pride running through that family that George Washington Parke Custis built Arlington House as a tribute to George Washington, the man he considered to be more of a father than a grandfather? Does it matter that George Washington Parke Custis had a daughter named Anna Marie, who married her cousin, Robert E. Lee, and that when her father died she inherited Arlington House, and that she and Lee called it home for thirty years, until 1861, when Lee, loyal to his Virginia roots, traded in his US Army stripes in order to command the Confederate Army? Does it matter that on May 13, 1864, William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was the first soldier to be buried on the grounds of Lee’s estate, already seized by the government due to back taxes, then made a Union headquarters? Or that by the war’s end, there were upwards of 16,000 bodies interred in the grounds? Does it matter that General Miegs of the Union Army had soldiers buried directly in front of Arlington House just to disgrace Robert E. Lee and to make sure he never returned there? To Anna Marie Custis Lee it mattered. After all, her great-grandparents were George and Martha Washington.


Early in 1963, Paul Fuqua was giving President Kennedy a tour of Arlington National Cemetery. As the official tour guide, Fuqua made reference to memorial Bridge being a symbolic link between the North and the South. President Kennedy hadn’t known that, and asked Fuqua to tell him more. Together they stood, as Fuqua explained how the bridge had been perfectly aligned between Arlington House and the Lincoln Memorial. The placement and design had been conscious, meant to be seen as a healing gesture. Kennedy and Fuqua looked down the hillside, almost perfectly centered between the two memorials. The sun was shining, a light breeze whistled through the leaves, and the valley looked so sad and lovely, as though unscorched by history. "This is so beautiful," President Kennedy said. "I could stay here forever."


The issue of the burial site has not been brought up with Jackie yet. But the idea of Arlington is becoming more and more likely. And once this autopsy is finished, Bobby and McNamara are going to look at the site, the space where Jack stood when he said he could stay there forever, and see if it is a place he thinks his brother could in fact stay. Then he’ll present it to Jackie. They need to make a decision. If not by tonight, then by morning, because the area will have to be cleared—apparently the plot is all clay and roots. The more the idea starts to settle, the better it already sounds. Plus it’s logical. He was both a war hero and the commander-in-chief. He should rest among his peers. And whatever is missing of Brookline or Cape Cod they can bring to him, in memoriam. Cape Cod granite. The fescue and clover of a Massachusetts field. It’s all so logical and uncommonly easy. As though they’d been thinking about it for days, planning it out for weeks. Already perfectly natural.

Breaking and Crumbling (Pt. 1)

She asks him if he knows, and Bobby says, "Knows?" and she says, "Yes, do you know what is going on with the procedure? Are they still doing that autopsy?" She’s looking right at him, her face stiff and composed, but her eyes drifting elsewhere. It nearly murdered her to say the word.

But there are new pains. Deep inside. They stab in her belly. Shooting up her spine. They remind her of labor pains. If only she could anticipate them. She can’t pinpoint the pains to any particular place. Still, when they do come she is almost doubled over. Caught between a clenched fist and a scream.

He says, "Let me telephone. I’ll check. See what I can find out."

She smiles back at him. "I’m breaking," she says. "I’m breaking all over."


"Crumbling. Crumbling apart." 

"Should I get Dr. Walsh?" 

"He’s already tried. I think I might die of an overdose before I feel the effects of his drugs." 

"What can I do for you?" 

"You can find out. I’m not I sure how I’ll hold … You can find out."

"Right. What they know."

"And when they’re going to stop." 


"Cutting him apart. Sparing him the pain."

Fixed in Wax

Tom Robinson was part of the team from Gawler’s Funeral Home that prepared the body for burial following the autopsy. Most of his work began after the arterial embalming. Initially, he had assessed the make-up needs for the president. Mostly cosmetic. The facial damage was minimal, just a few marks on the temple, near the hairline. It was small enough that he didn’t need stitches to close it. The President’s hair could cover the wounds. But just in case, Robinson would apply a bit of wax to smooth it out. The bigger concern, of course, was the hole in the back of the skull. A piece of rubber was brought in to seal it up. First they had to dry the skin out. Then insert as much of the rubber as they could under the scalp and hair, and then try to sew the skin to the rubber. As Robinson later testified, the objective was to sew it up tight, with perfection and precision. They were afraid of leaks, because "once the body is moved or shaken in the casket and carried up the Capitol steps and opened again, we had to be very careful, there would have been blood on the pillow."

After completing the procedure, Robinson dabbed his sponge along the President’s face, evening out his complexion. Brushing his hair in a way that denied any suggestion of trauma.

Breaking and Crumbling (Pt. 2)

She’ll agree to Arlington. And, though they’ll want the site to be nearly in front of the Lee house, Major General Jack Graham of the Army Corps of Engineers will succeed in working with the family to move the gravesite down to just over the military crest, where it will still keep in line with Memorial Bridge, but leave Arlington House its own distinction. She won’t say much to Bobby and McNamara other than to agree and make sure there is ample space. Already she will be planning to have Patrick’s remains removed from the Brookline plot, along with their stillborn daughter, Arabella, buried in Newport, and have them both transported to Arlington to be reinterred, resting beside their father. And when she’ll think about the dead babies she’ll get those shooting pains again, as though those lost children were still trying to kick and push their way out of her. It’s almost a full body contraction. Maybe when they’re laid together, and the physicality of it relieves the shock of dying, the pain will hurt a little less. And her body can stop breaking and crumbling.