A History of Presidential State Funerals

by M-Gillies

The flag-draped casket of President John F. Kennedy departs the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. The riderless horse 'Blackjack' with empty reversed boots, a tradition with roots in the Roman republic, is seen in lower left.

It was only 32 days after taking his oath that President William Henry Harrison made history as the first president to die while in office due to complications of pneumonia. Prior to his death, there had never been an established form for official mourning and funerals for presidents who died while in office, but it soon became clear that the death of a president required a formal ceremony with symbolism suitable to the dignity of the state.

Enlisting the aide of a Washington merchant named Alexander Hunter to plan the funeral ceremony, President Harrison’s funeral was a simple one, held in the East Room with attendance through invitation only. Modelled after royal funerals, the White House was draped in black bunting, the United States Marine Band performed dirges as Harrison’s casket was mounted on a curtained, upholstered black and white carriage, where his body was taken to the Congressional Cemetery and placed in a public vault.

Through Harrison’s funeral came the established funeral precedents which would be used whenever one of his successors died while serving in office, creating the foundation of what would soon evolve into a State Funeral.

While Zachary Taylor was the second president to die in office, it wouldn’t be until the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, that the United States would experience a period of national mourning. With the advances of innovative technologies such as the telegraph, which made the access of news instantaneous, as well as the combination of the use of the once frowned upon embalming process and the railroad, which allowed Lincoln’s body to be transported by funeral train 1,700 miles through New York City to Springfield (making Lincoln the first president to lie in state).

With six hundred guests attending his funeral, the East Room overflowed with mourners. However, it was during the procession to the Capitol where thousands of mourners spread beyond the fence of the White House and grieved for their fallen president, that the government recognized that people needed to mourn publicly as well. Through the ceremonies performed for Lincoln, his funeral became the basis for future state funerals, which would become known as state funerals for ex-Presidents of the United States, Presidents-elect, as well as other people designated by the President. These funerals would  offer public funerals administered by the Military District of Washington (MDW) – funerals which would be greatly influenced by protocol steeped in tradition and rich in history.

After President James A. Garfield was grievously wounded in 1881, when he was shot twice in an assassination attempt, it wasn’t long before he succumbed to his wounds and died. When his coffin was brought to the Capitol Rotunda, over one hundred thousand mourners viewed his coffin over several days.

While these subsequent state funerals over the years have been loosely modelled on the Lincoln state funeral, it was Jacqueline Kennedy who instructed White House Chief Usher J.B. West to follow the nineteenth protocol during the state funeral of John F. Kennedy.

Using copies of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated and Harper’s Weekly, executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission, Professor James Robertson, and director of the Library of Congress, David Mearns used the information to transform the East Room to reflect the state funeral given to Lincoln.

Since the Henry Harrison’s state funeral, no detail in planning has been too small. With a 138-page military planning document that dictates details ranging from seating charts to floral arrangements, some of the protocols used for presidents such as Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson have included the following:

- Formal notification of demise to all branches of government, foreign countries and general public.

- Repose in home state.

- Movement to Washington, D.C.

- Lying in State at the U.S. Capitol.

- Main funeral procession along Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.

- Casket transfer from horse-drawn caisson to hearse at the intersection of 16th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.

- Funeral service in Washington, D.C.

- Movement to location where the former president will be laid to rest.

- Private funeral service and interment.

Presidents who have had state funerals:

- 1841: William Henry Harrison

- 1850: Zachary Taylor

- 1865: Abraham Lincoln

- 1881: James A. Garfield

- 1901: William McKinley

- 1923: Warren G. Harding

- 1930: William Howard Taft

- 1963: John F. Kennedy

- 1969: Dwight D. Eisenhower

- 1973: Lyndon B. Johnson

- 2004: Ronald Reagan

- 2006: Gerald Ford

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