top of page

Buried at Sea: The Casket That Carried John F Kennedy

Watched by widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK's casket is carried aboard Air Force One for its flight from Dallas to Washington DC

The story of JFK's original coffin is worth telling. It was ordered from Dallas undertaker Vernon O’Neal by Secret Service agent Clint Hill when futile attempts at Parkland Hospital to save the slain President were finally abandoned. Hill is the man who leapt onto the back of Kennedy’s limousine after the fatal shots were fired. A solid bronze model was chosen, lined with white satin that cost $3,995 – more than $36,000 today.

The casket was a Handley Britannia model by the Elgin Casket Company that weighed in at over 400 pounds. O’Neal needed the help of his employees to load the casket into the hearse. By the time he arrived at the hospital and saw the condition of the body he was there to load into the premium coffin, he was shocked at what he saw.

Kennedy’s wound was profuse with blood, still oozing from his remains. To preserve the integrity of the casket, he and the nurses wrapped the President’s body in linen sheets and lined the coffin with plastic so that blood would not seep through to the lining. It did little to preserve the quality of the interior. Kennedy’s autopsy would be conducted at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, at the request of the now former First Lady.

At Parkland the body of JFK was placed in the coffin and the Secret Service entourage began to wheel it from the hospital for a flight to Washington. There are conflicting reports of what happened next. According to one account the agents were stopped by Dr Earl Rose, the Dallas County Medical Examiner who physically barred their way and insisted that the body could not be removed because, by law, an autopsy had to be performed in Dallas.

The agents and Kennedy aides pleaded and argued with Rose, but he would not budge. As tempers began to fray, Justice of the Peace Theron Ward was sent for to overrule Rose. But he refused and, siding with the Medical Examiner, he said: “It’s just another homicide as far as I’m concerned.”

Still reeling with shock, disbelief, anger and incredulity at what had happened an hour or so earlier, this was the final straw for Kennedy’s men. Kenny O’Donnell, a close aide of the fallen President, lost his temper and was reported to have shouted: “Go f--- yourself. We’re leaving. Get the hell out of the way!”

With the Secret Service men threatening fisticuffs and apparently ready to draw their guns, Rose, Ward and some Dallas policemen were shoved aside as the President’s coffin, used almost as a battering ram, was hustled out of the hospital.

However, agent Clint Hill remembers the incident differently. In later testimony he makes no reference to a dramatic encounter and says that the Dallas official reluctantly agreed that the slain President's body could be taken provided that he was accompanied by a qualified medical person until the time of an autopsy in Washington. With that assurance the body was then removed from the hospital.

When doctors in Bethesda opened the bronze casket, they saw that Kennedy’s remains were not limited to the makeshift protective lining set up by O’Neal in Dallas. By the time the body was embalmed and presentable, O’Neal’s casket was a mess and would not be used for the President’s viewing in the Capitol. The funeral home that embalmed Kennedy took the casket. Not knowing what to do with it, they kept it for more than a year.

Back in Dallas, Vernon O’Neal was arguing with the U.S. government over the price tag of the coffin. The government felt it was excessive, but even after O’Neal lowered the price, the two sides remained at an impasse. What O’Neal really wanted, however, was the coffin returned. He was getting offers for more than $100,000 for it – nearly $1 million today.

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One next to the former first lady

The federal government, to prevent the casket from falling into the hands of the “morbidly curious,” paid O’Neal his $3,495, then turned it over to the U.S. Air Force, who drilled holes in it, filled it with 80-pound sandbags and crated it before dropping it into the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles East of Washington, D.C. President Kennedy, A Navy veteran of WWII, had once considered a burial at sea.

Later, there were reports that Vernon O’Neal had received an offer of $100,000 for the coffin so that it could be put on display as a relic of the assassination. But it no longer belonged to him and on 18th February, 1966, at the Kennedy family’s request, it was disposed of by the Air Force. They filled the casket with sandbags, encased it in a solid pine box, then drilled over 40 holes into the structure. It was also bound with metal banding tape and finally fitted with parachutes.

This rare load was taken aboard a C130 transport plane, then flew to a selected point 9,000 feet deep and away from shipping lanes. At 10am the casket was pushed out of the C130’s tail hatch and after the parachutes softened its landing on the water it immediately sank. The C130 circled the area for 20 minutes to make sure nothing resurfaced.


bottom of page