A last farewell
Funeral rites have had an important symbolic and social function since time immemorial. In many cultures, funeral processions for high-ranking members of society play a special role. Even today, members of European royal families as well as statesmen and women are honoured with a ceremonial funeral train before being laid to rest. This gives the general public the opportunity to take leave of the deceased as well as literally displaying the person’s influence within the existing structures.
In the turbulent 1960s, Americans had frequent occasion to mourn the loss of public figures. Just two months after the violent death of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, and only a few years after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, his younger brother Robert was also assassinated on 6 June 1968. The event traumatized a nation whose hopes of a political turnaround had only just been restored: Kennedy, who at the time was senator of the state of New York, had been the most promising contender for the office of President of the United States.
The American photographer Paul Fusco was on board an exceptional “funeral train” on behalf of his employer, Look magazine. The train carrying Robert Kennedy’s body travelled from New York to Washington D.C. on 8 June 1968. Hundreds of thousands of people of all backgrounds, black and white, rich and poor, lined the route of the train on that hot summer’s day to pay their last respects to “Bobby”. Fascinated by the impressions and the atmosphere revealed to him through the window of the train, Fusco photographed for eight hours non-stop. His pictures portray the scenes he saw with unforeseen immediacy: As the train was moving, it was almost impossible to compose details, and the photographer was forced to use his camera intuitively. The fleeting nature of the moment is discernible in the blurring of many of the images. This makes the vividness with which these pictures capture the people’s emotions as the train passes by all the more impressive: Standing alone or in groups, in towns and in the countryside, they express compassion for an unprecedented tragedy coupled with deeply shaken personal hopes of a better political future.
The series “RFK funeral train” stands out as a unique photographic document of contemporary American history. Even more than 40 years after the event, Fusco’s pictures still convey the state of a deeply aggrieved nation with poignant relevance.
born in Leominster, Massachusetts, USA
military service as a photographer for the United States Army Signal Corps in Korea
after receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photojournalism from the Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, he moves to New York, where he works for the magazine Look through 1971
publishes his first photobook Sense Relaxation: Below the Mind
works as a freelance photographer for, among others, Life, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and Time
becomes a member of Magnum Photos
six photographs from his “RFK Funeral Train” series are purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
dies in San Francisco, California, USA