Rarely has a piece of funereal furniture caused more controversy than in the remarkable journey of a particular bronze casket.

My education in caskets began at an early age. There are all sorts today, and even in days of yore when there weren’t all sorts, there were choices. At the time my father owned his funeral home there were obvious differences between a coffin and a casket; a coffin was made solely of wood and shaped similarly to the human body, narrowing at the head and feet. A casket is rectangular, the same width from top to bottom. Generally padded and lined, they’re lowered into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. The biggest difference between a casket and a coffin is that the casket opens at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed. Though the least expensive casket was constructed of plywood and covered in a felt-like cloth, caskets were usually forged of various metals. The most expensive casket was bronze. 

The story begins with an undertaker who became greedy.

Vernon O’Neal received a phone call one November afternoon in 1963. A man’s voice on the other end requested the O’Neal Funeral Home’s best casket for immediate delivery to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Vernon chose a solid bronze casket with a white satin lining. It weighed over 400 pounds when empty and came with a hefty price tag as well - $3,995.00. In 2012, that translates to roughly $30,000.

Vernon waited for his colleagues to return from a lunch break and subsequently set out, unknowingly, to President Kennedy’s tragic emergency room scene. After a brief moment of recovery from witnessing the results of the bullet that shattered President Kennedy’s skull, he quickly set to work alongside several emergency room nurses to protect the expensive casket. They used a plastic mattress covering to line the inside and wrapped the President’s head in several bed sheets and another around his body.

A kafuffle and swearing match developed in the hallway of the hospital between the Secret Service and the authorities in Dallas who insisted that they had legal rights to perform the autopsy. The Secret Service, on a mission to take the President’s body back to Washington, forced their way past the Dallas medical examiner, police and justice of the peace. The President’s bronze casket was loaded onto Air Force One at Love Field and finally arrived in Washington, D.C.

At the Bethesda Naval Hospital, another funeral home entered the story. The bronze casket could no longer be used. Despite the effort to protect it, the inside was stained with the President’s blood and missing a handle from the scuffle in the emergency room corridor and subsequent flight. Washington’s Gawler Funeral Home provided the casket that would be seen on the world’s television screens. The elegant flag-draped casket made from hand-rubbed, five-hundred-year-old African mahogany would eventually rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

But what of the bronze casket?  Less than two months after the President’s burial Vernon O’Neal invoiced the government for $3,995.00. The government’s view was that the bill was “excessive” and subsequently O’Neal offered a $500 discount. The government was still hesitant to agree to pay. They learned, however, that what O’Neal really wanted was the casket, which was stored in a warehouse in Washington, still in possession of the Gawler funeral home. Vernon had plans for that bronze casket. He’d been offered $100,000 from a party interested in placing it on public display and possibly even conducting a tour around the country, a blatant and tasteless cashing in on the tragedy of the assassination.

Appalled, the Kennedy family urgently requested the government to pay O’Neal, which they did, and the General Services Administration took possession of the casket in 1965. That year the House of Representatives passed a bill that required any object related to the assassination to be preserved as evidence. Enter the bronze casket once again. A congressman from Texas wrote to the Attorney General who had replaced Bobby Kennedy a year before, and suggested that the casket had no value for anyone other than “the morbidly curious” and recommended that it be destroyed. Attorney General Katzenbach agreed.

The Air Force drilled forty holes into the casket and filled it with three 80-pound sandbags to ensure its inability to float to the surface or wash ashore. It was then placed in a pine box that was also drilled full of holes. On February 18, 1966 the Air Force set out to the Atlantic Ocean with the bronze casket in a C130 transport plane. The drop point, several miles off the Maryland and Delaware coastline was chosen because it wasn’t near shipping or air lanes. Also, members of the Air Force knew that at one time the President had mentioned that he liked to be buried at sea in this location. According to released documents, the casket lies 9,000ft down at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.