The Robert Kennedy funeral train. . . seems like times were simpler back then

Robert F. Kennedy grave at Arlington National Cemetery

As we age it is interesting how things from the past can be brought back to memory.  It’s the season of political primaries and an article from the Ohio University Scripps College of Communication triggered a memory of mine back to the Summer of 1968.

First of all, the article from Ohio University was in honor of alumnus Paul Fusco who photographed the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train.  You can see the article here.

The memory for me brings back great memories of a united family that I grew up in.  A family that consisted of three boys and my mom and dad. . . dad who owned and operated a funeral home.  I say “united” because in the 54 years since the Summer of 1968 I’ve lost through death one brother and both of my parents.  It’s just my older brother and I left and I find it interesting how the passage of time seems to rekindle good, old, memories of family. . . . and you can get those feelings back. . . . but you can never get that physical intimacy of your nuclear family back which is what makes the memories so precious.

This memory of the Summer of 1968 finds me in Anchorage, Alaska, camping in our family motorhome at the destination of our Summer trip that year — following a long trek from Minnesota, through Canada, and the Yukon Territory, and finally into the Great State of Alaska.  It was the trip that my dad always wanted to take, and being a small town funeral director, it took great planning and preparation for him to be gone from the shop for three weeks.

In any regard, I woke up in Anchorage on the morning of June 6, 1968, and learned that Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated the evening before only moments after learning that he was victorious in the California Presidential primary.  America was mired in the Vietnam war at the time and Kennedy (RFK as he was known) seemed to many Americans to be a hopeful promise to extricating the nation from that war and then healing the divisive nation.

Kennedy’s body was returned to New York for a funeral mass and then transported by train from New York to Washington, DC on June 8, 1968.  After the funeral mass in New York mourners – estimated to be somewhere between one and two million of them – lined the train track to view the funeral train from New York to Washington, DC. The journey, on June 8, took eight hours followed by burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  As mentioned earlier, photographer Fusco documented the trip with over 1000 photographs from inside the train.

About those photos Fusco noted,  “. . . when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through — it went very slowly — I just opened the window and began to shoot.”

Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

You can see some of those photos here from an article in Aperture and you can also see some of the photos here from an article in Time Magazine.  Because the extended Kennedy family on the train was off limits for Fusco he mentioned in the Time article, ” (he) had no other choice but to make the bystanders the center of the story”.

As I looked at these photos I saw a grieving nation. . and to me it seemed to be a grieving that was more respectful than we see today.  I see a respect that a nation had for one of its leaders. . . something I don’t see too often today as partisan politics seem to tear each other apart.

RFK was laid to rest only about two months after another peaceful reformer, Dr. Martin Luther King had been.  It was a sad time for our nation. . .a time we had to pick up the pieces and move on.  Here’s a snippet from the Aperture article that relates the thought of the Fusco photographs, “Yet for many, Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train remains a touchstone body of work. An incomparable document of gestures of public grief, Fusco’s incredible collection of photographs captures a moment of cultural shift unlike almost any other.”

For those of you who remember the tragedies of Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy these articles will bring you back to that time.  And for those of you who were not yet born at the time you can learn about a time when America grieved much like it did with the President Lincoln and President John Kennedy assassinations.

The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy – Wikipedia

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  1. Fred Schaich on June 4, 2023 at 1:09 pm

    It was an emotional time – 10pm June 7th, 1968 at the 85th and Madison Flower shop as Gus and I were finishing up the creation of the glycerine treated magnolia leaf garland that would be used for us to trim the RFK funeral train the next morning. We got a call at that time from Rose Kennedy who was pretty gruff and demanding to speak with the person in charge which was me. I also suggested Rooney’s phone number which I gave her. She asked what we were preparing. I said Ethel and Rooney (the funeral director) had arranged for us to garland the parlor car with magnolia leaves. She said “Laurel Leaves – victory in death”. I explained that we did not have sufficient laurel leaf stock to accomplish that late moment change. But she insisted and said for us to make it happen, so got a call from Rooney to confirm this change and thus began the great search for laurel leaves for us to use to create the garland. The shop owner became engaged in securing laurel leaves which were immediately available at the flower market and and gotten to us by calling in employees to get them to us by cab then there was others that were cut from the farms in Rye, NY and driven down to us by 2am. Our emotional tedious work was quickly turned into adrenaline filled urgency. The project was still completed very well by Gus and I by 6am when Rooney showed up with a limo for us and Rooney and a flower car for the garlands and some floral arrangements for the train. There is much more to this series of events, but we did get it all done at the Sunnyside yards on schedule. We were asked to accompany the train to insure it all held up to the rigor of the ride, but they promised the train would not go faster than 35MPH. Of course the train had to speed up to over 60 mph as they were behind schedule and anticipated his burial after dark in Arlington. Realizing the importance of our work holding up I did not sleep that whole day, as I was really worn out, but I watched the local TV stations covering the train flying through each town to see if our work held up. That day, all you saw was the train and those on the observation platform of the parlor car. After that day all you saw from that day was the people who came to pay their respects to RFK by video and photos on the side of the train tracks. RFK and his wife Ethel and Jacqueline, were amazing customers of our shop and good people and it is with this sense of respect and remembrance that I will lay a small piece of laurel garland on the grave of this strong minded but kind and gentle man. June 8, 2023

  2. Ron Stoll on June 23, 2022 at 6:35 am

    Nice article and nice linked articles. Brings back memories. Thank you.

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