How the JFK "Eternal Flame" Persists Even Amid Inclement Weather

On a brisk November day in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy stood before the coffin of her late husband, lighting a torch at the head of the grave with the intention of the flame being an eternal symbol of John F. Kennedy's spirit. The symbol had been a last-minute request from the former first lady the day before the graveside service. That sent engineers scrambling to scavenge through electrical shops for the necessary supplies to create a burner for an eternal flame that could endure the elements. On such short notice, they turned up with what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described as a tiki torch. They tested the torch, soaking it with water and blasting it with air, and the flame persisted. A gas line connected to a propane tank 200 feet from the grave fed the flame at a pressure high enough to resist being blown out by the heaviest winds. Evergreens were placed around the base to cover the tubing and base of the device. Since that day, the flame has been accidentally extinguished only two times in over 50 years, one of which was due to weather-related technical difficulties. The first time was on Dec. 10, 1963, when a group of school children, ages 8-11, had been taking turns sprinkling the grave with holy water. The cap came off the bottle and a little stream of water hit the flame directly, extinguishing it. One of the assistants at the graveyard was able to relight the flame within a few minutes. The second time was in 1967 when an August rainstorm extinguished the flame after the automatic spark igniter faltered due to a flooded transformer. It was quickly repaired and the torch reignited. The design is such that the flame can be transferred to a temporary device if maintenance is required on the main torch, which ensures that the eternal flame remains lit.