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The Man Who Dug JFK’s Grave, Twice

Clifton Pollard dug graves in the Arlington National Cemetery for more than thirty years

John F. Kennedy's permanent gravesite at the Arlington National Cemetery. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

More than three years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Clifton Pollard dug a second grave for the American leader.

Pollard first gained attention after JFK was first interred, when Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin wrote about the president’s death from the view of the Arlington National Cemetery gravedigger. “It’s an honor for me to be here,” Pollard said at that time, as he went to work on a Sunday to make sure the grave was ready for the president’s funeral. He wasn’t able to attend the funeral because of crowds.

On this day in 1967, four years after that first burial, writes Michael Daly for The Daily Beast, Pollard moved the president’s grave. The reason: foot traffic from visitors to the original gravesite was far more than officials expected, and Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to install an eternal flame as a memorial at his gravesite. The first installation of the eternal flame, for the funeral, was a rush job, and proper piping had to be installed so the flame would be truly eternal.

“I felt like I was disturbing the president,” Pollard said later, according to Daly.

JFK’s body was moved in secret, writes History.com. Only a few people attended his re-interment: Jacqueline Kennedy and his brothers Edward and Robert as well as President Lyndon Johnson, who stepped into his shoes after he was assassinated. Just two years later, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, he was buried by his brother. Pollard didn’t dig that grave, Daly writes. Jacqueline Kennedy was also buried there in 1994.

In later years, Pollard “would often pause by the Kennedy memorial before heading home to his wife, Hattie Pollard,” Daly writes. He retired in 1980 following a stroke that partially paralyzed him. On the wall by the television, a commendation from the army for his services as Kennedy’s grave digger hung. Daly writes:

Pollard also had on display the text of Kennedy’s inaugural address and its call to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Pollard had gone straight from serving in the Army in World War II to spending more than three decades digging graves in Arlington with quiet care and unwavering dignity. He had demonstrated that a person can give full measure to America’s greatness by imparting nobility to a humble task.

Kennedy, who was a WWII veteran, remains only one of two presidents buried at Arlington, along with William Taft. Just a few hundred feet from his grave lie both Clifton and Hattie Pollard, Daly writes. The gravedigger made sure he’d be resting near the president, he told a reporter.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated the year in which JFK was reinterred. It has been corrected. Smithsonian.com regrets the error.

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