Americas and Oceania Collections blog

08 June 2018

On Funeral Trains

June 5, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  Reflections on his political and cultural significance have appeared across media, with many  articles illustrated by wonderful photographs from the lively campaign for the Democratic nomination he was working on, and winning, at the time of his death.  Perhaps the most striking images, however, are of the crowds that came to pay their respect alongside the train tracks via which RFK's funeral train passed on its way from New York to Washington on June 8, 1968.

The most well circulated images from the funeral train were taken by Magnum photographer Paul Fusco.  Fusco was working for Look magazine, and was assigned to the funeral mass and burial.  The mass was held at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where RFK's brother Edward Kennedy delivered this moving eulogy to his older brother.  Subsequently, his body was taken by train to Washington where it was transferred to a cortege that wound past Resurrection City, to its final resting place alongside President John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery.

It was a hot summer Saturday and the crowds that appeared along the length of the train tracks were so large that the train had to run at a slower speed, following a collision at a station.  The journey lasted most of the day, and was broadcast in its entirety on national television (it was also partially transmitted by satellite to the UK).  Perhaps for this reason, the photographs remained largely unseen until 1999 when Fusco found a new audience for his work.  The America they capture is a reflection of RFK's political vision and campaign strategy - profoundly democratic and inclusive, and which spoke directly to and about people at the margins of society.  They are also a fascinating evocation of US urban life in 1968, the social demographic mapping of cities, and the importance of trains and railway infrastructure within this.  It is interesting to consider how the communities depicted in Fusco's photographs have since fared.  Baltimore proves a particularly sobering comparison, from the lively and thriving neighbourhood seen in Fusco's photograph of North Broadway, and its current condition.  Elsewhere, whole communities disappeared under eminent domain with the expansion of Washington Dulles airport.

It is safe to say that this particularly egalitarian view of national mourning was possible because it was a train journey.  In this respect, Kennedy's funeral followed in the footsteps of Presidents F.D. Roosevelt and Lincoln, both of whom were transported by train following their deaths.  FDR died at Warm Springs, Atlanta, and was returned to Washington by train, although though this was not part of his funerary rituals.

FDR Funeral Train
Map by Steven Noble, shelfmark YC.2012.a.6505

Abraham Lincoln's funeral train journey was of a wholly different scale.  Departing Washington on April 21st 1865, it passed through hundreds of towns, stopping at 12 cities in 6 states on a 13 day trip.  Pulled by Lincoln's purpose-made engine, The United States, the funeral train followed the reverse route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington made by Lincoln for his 1860 inauguration.  You can read more about this on the Library of Congress' interactive site, which houses photographs, maps and newspaper accounts.  Lincoln's funeral is now near-mythical, and has been an inspiration for many projects - including this particular endeavour to rebuild The United States.

Clearly, trains figure largely in the American political imagination, which is pertinent given their early importance in connecting isolated populations to national events.  The whistle-stop campaign continued to be used in 20th Century campaigns as it continued to be a practical strategy of reaching otherwise alienated voters in sprawling states, while also invoking the nostalgia of 19th century political Americana.  It thus should not be a surprise that trains continued to figure largely in political death - they too proved an eminently practical means of enabling community-based mourning, and in the case of President Lincoln and Senator Kennedy, they also transported a large entourage of mourners, politicians, and press.

Given that Roosevelt was known for his whistle-stop  campaigns, turning out to see his funeral train was a particularly apt way of bidding farewell to the wartime President.  Indeed, RFK also undertook a whistle-stop campaign in Oregon, just a matter of weeks before his assassination.  Comparing the images of this to those from his funeral train, and reading descriptions of the atmosphere on board, one can't help but think how fitting it was that RFK's funeral elicited the spirit of inclusive participatory democracy that characterised his politics and his campaign.

- F.D. Fuentes Rettig, Curator North American Collections


The issue of Look Fusco originally printed his images in can be found at shelfmark, they appear in the RFK special memorial issue which hit the shelves late June, 1968.  They can also be seen in his seminal photobook RFK: Funeral Train, shelfmark LB.31.a.10247 , and subsequent expanded publication Paul Fusco: RFK shelfmark, LC.37.a.312 .  Jean Stein's American Journey, a collection of interviews with some of the passengers aboard RFK's funeral train is at shelfmark A70/3547.  Bill Epstein's collection of campaign photographs, A Time It Was can be found at LC.31.a.6397, and Harry Benson's RFK: A Photographer's Journal is currently on order.  Full descriptions of the Washington stages of both Senator Kennedy and President F.D. Roosevelt's funerals can be found in B.C. Mossman and M.W. Stark's The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, shelfmark A.S.573/59. or online here.  See also Michael Leavy, The Lincoln Funeral, shelfmark YKL.2016.b.2629 .