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JFK's funeral and the sounding of "Taps"

Updated on November 6, 2013
The bugle used by Sgt. Keith Clark at JFK's funeral is on display at Arlington Cemetery.
The bugle used by Sgt. Keith Clark at JFK's funeral is on display at Arlington Cemetery. | Source

Soon after Army Sgt. Keith Clark heard the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination he headed out and got a haircut.

On November 22, 1963, Clark was the lead trumpet player in the U.S. Army Band stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. One of his duties was playing “Taps” at funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery, which was near his military post.

Clark theorized that he might be called on to perform this honor at Kennedy’s funeral. It was something that he had done numerous times at military funerals in Arlington. He also had played “Taps” during the Veteran’s Days ceremony attended by JFK two weeks before his death.

This melancholy sound performed by a solitary bugler is a fixture at military funerals. Many people feel that “Taps” is the most touching part of a military funeral. But it wasn't always that way. “Taps” has long been used by the U.S. Army to signal soldiers to turn their “Lights Out.”

In 1862, "Taps" was first used at the conclusion of a military funeral held during the Civil War. The Army refused Captain John Tidball’s request to fire three shots over the grave of a fallen soldier because they deemed it unsafe in the midst of war. Tidball knew the ceremony needed something and instructed “Taps” be played. Within a short time this custom of playing “Taps” was adopted by the entire army.

The playing of “Taps” at a military funeral is always an emotional experience for the family and friends recalls Jari Villanueva, retired Air Force bugler and bugle historian. He served as the ceremonial trumpeter at Arlington National Cemetery and has sounded “Taps” thousands and thousands of times. Villanueva says playing “Taps” at a funeral “sort of brings down the curtain on someone’s life.”

The 24 musical notes that comprise "Taps."  ♦  Image in the public domain
The 24 musical notes that comprise "Taps." ♦ Image in the public domain

General Butterfield and "Taps"

The melody we know today as “Taps” is not the original bugle call, which was called “Extinguish Lights.” The bulge call indicated to the soldiers that it was time to go to sleep.

During the Civil War, Gen. Daniel Butterfield summoned Pvt. Oliver W. Norton, the brigade bugler, to his tent. With the private’s assistance, the general experimented and eventually came up with the 24 note bugle call.

Previously, the U.S. Army had used music based on a French bugle call known as "Scott's Tattoo." Butterfield thought this call was too formal to signify the end of the day. Since the general could not read music he needed Norton to help him devise a replacement.

Butterfield handed Norton an envelope and written on the back of it where some notes on a staff. He was instructed to play the notes and after listening Butterfield made several revisions.

After the war, Norton wrote to Century Magazine and explained what had occurred that night. The bugler played Butterfield’s music. “I did this several times. He changed it somewhat lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me,” Norton recalled.

Once Butterfield was satisfied he directed Norton “to sound that call for 'Taps' thereafter in place of the regulation call," the bugler said. "The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade.”

The next day, buglers from neighboring brigades sought out Norton and asked him for “copies of the music, which I gladly furnished,” he said.

The bugle call continued to spread through various Army units. It was even used by the Confederates.

After the Civil War, “Taps” was adopted by the entire U.S. Army. It’s played both at U.S. military bases every night and during military funerals.

“He belongs to the people”

Many in the nation, including the AP and The New York Times, believed that “Taps” would be played at the Kennedy family’s cemetery plot near Boston. They printed stories that JFK’s body would be interred there.

However, when it came to determining funeral details the Kennedy family followed Jackie Kennedy’s lead. Her wishes were summed up by her simple statement, “He belongs to the people.”

Cognizant of Jackie’s wishes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said JFK should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery so his grave would be accessible to all Americans. The president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, examined three potential presidential burial plots and selected the slope below Arlington House as ideal. After viewing the site, Jackie Kennedy agreed.

One cemetery employee recalled that in the spring of 1963 President Kennedy had made a surprise visit to the national cemetery and visited Arlington House, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion. The elevated site provided a magnificent view of Washington, D.C. The employee recalls that while Kennedy stood there he said he could stay forever — a statement which many believed confirmed the gravesite decision.

The Arlington National Cemetery staff worked fervently for the next two days surveying, marking and preparing the gravesite. They also outfitted the site with an "eternal flame" requested by Jackie Kennedy. The cemetery officials turned to several Army engineers for help. They designed and constructed a propane fueled torch. Installation of the eternal flame was finished around midnight on the eve of the funeral.

They weren’t the only ones working late on the state funeral. During the wee morning hours of Monday, November 25, 1963, the military commanders reviewed the funeral plans for later that day. The U.S. Marine Band would play “The National Anthem.” There would be a 21-gun salute fired by cannons from Fort Myer, Virginia. Seven members of the Third U.S. Infantry would fire three rifle volleys, followed by the sounding of “Taps.” Suddenly, they realized a bugler hadn’t been requested for the funeral.

In the middle of the night, the phone rang at Sergeant Clark’s quarters. He was ordered to report to Arlington in the morning for the presidential funeral. Clark reported to the Arlington House slope at 6 a.m. There was no one from the military there. After enduring the 30 degree temps for a while, he drove to the nearby Army Band building and went to sleep.

At 9 a.m., a call came. Clark had missed the graveside rehearsal. He was told to report to the Kennedy graveside around noon.

A military honor guard holds the flag above John F. Kennedy's casket.
A military honor guard holds the flag above John F. Kennedy's casket. | Source
Three rifle volleys are fire at JFK's funeral,
Three rifle volleys are fire at JFK's funeral, | Source
Sgt. Clark at JFK's graveside.
Sgt. Clark at JFK's graveside. | Source

Clark returned to Arlington around 11:30 a.m. He’s superiors told him not to wear his overcoat. The bugle player stayed at his post for over three hours. He mentally blocked out the cold temperature and his mounting tension. At one point he ate his lunch — an apple he’d brought from home.

Periodically, he warmed his bugle.

At 1:30 p.m., the funeral procession left St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington and began the hour-long trip to Arlington. From the gravesite Clark had a good view of the approaching funeral marchers.

At 3 p.m., the Kennedy family, U.S. officials, world premiers and presidents all gathered at the gravesite.

Soon, 50 fighter jets flew overhead followed by Air Force One, which dipped its wing in final tribute.

Next, Irish Cadets executed a silent drill. Then Cardinal Richard Cushing began the graveside funeral service.

When the Cardinal finished military voices rang out: “Present arms!” Then: “Firing Party, Fire Three Volleys.”

The seven infantrymen executed the command and many of the mourners flinched as the shots rang out.

The moment had come.

Clark raised his bugle, faced the widow as always and played that melancholy song.

“Taps” filled the air.


Looking for more information

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© 2013 Thomas Dowling


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    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the kind words-- both here and in your other messages, JSMatthew

    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Wow! I never knew this side of the History of TAPS. I remember when I was a Boy Scout someone would always play TAPS as a signal to go to bed ( aka, "Lights Out"!). I was also honored to be asked by a private family to play TAPS at a funeral of an Auxiliary Member of the American Legion Ladies Aux. (I am not a Vet but I am a son of a vet who happens to play trumpet.) Needless to say, it was an honor but it was about 20 degrees outside and there was snow on the ground. It was a choppy performance to say the least. Great and interesting Hub here, Up and shared.


    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida


      I don't remember the note cracking, but I did read about that. It's a whole other story. Some "pundits" said this slip captured the mood of America. Clark felt awful about it and continually beat himself up over his error.

      I started out thinking this info would be a long email. Then it grew and soon I realized it was destine to live at

      Thanks for your comments.


    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      5 years ago from California Gold Country

      I do remember this, the tv coverage was live. The bugler cracked a note, which was kind of a shock at the time, but understandable considering the considerable pressure of the moment. You did a nice job with the article.


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