Hailed by Harry Truman as “The First Lady of the World”, Eleanor Roosevelt was known for not only her role as the longest serving first lady to her husband Franklin D Roosevelt, but also as a worldwide advocate of peace and justice. Whilst also fulfilling her role as First Lady to her husband, President FDR, above and beyond that which was necessary, Eleanor would also be the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and champion human rights in America and across the globe.
Her request of a quiet and understate funeral which was attended before the announcement of her death was a wish for Mrs Roosevelt. This was, as her good friend William Turner Levy noted, “unrealistic”. Wishes to refrain from public announcement of her death were unsurprisingly not met, but her funeral was kept as modest as it could be. On a rather bleak wintery day, Eleanor was laid to rest next to her husband in Hyde Park, NY, with the service occurring in FDR’s St. James’ Church. A sombre occasion, with just 250 attendees, the request of a quiet funeral was not dismissed by her nearest and dearest.
However, as you can expect from a woman of such high-calibre, the attendees to this funeral were anything but unassuming. This picture depicts President John F. Kennedy joined by his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and ex-Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Alongside these important figures would stand other important figures such as the then current U.S Ambassador to the United Nations. Despite Eleanors wishes, you could almost argue that her funeral was one of the first star studded A-List celebrity funerals to grace America. The ripples of grief surrounding her death would be felt by many American people and would be added to by the death of JFK only a year later. Not even Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle and founding father Teddy Roosevelt would be given the same service that Eleanor received. This culture would pave the way for the way the Presidential grief affects the nation in general, many First Lady’s before Mrs Roosevelt’s funeral would have received nothing more than a wreath or flowers at the graveside.
This funeral would be the first time three presidents attended one funeral, with these important figures paying their respects to a remarkable woman. It would be made even more remarkable provided the context of the time period it was partaken under. At the height of the Cuban Missile crisis, JFK would be advised to install a telephone outside the church incase of any unforeseen circumstances developing which would need Washington to directly contact him.
Perhaps the severity of surrounding issues yet the desire for such a powerful funeral to take place is an indicator as to how important this woman was to the American people. Her civil rights activism for both marginalised African-Americans as well as women, combined with her involvement in Human Rights progression and her role in the United Nations which she juggled with aiding her husband’s Presidency and looking after their five children was reflected in her funeral and resulting grief felt by the ordinary American. An unprecedented send off for an unprecedented woman.