Lying in State a Deeply Rooted American Tradition

by M-Gillies

Former President Gerald R. Ford during national farewell funeral ceremonies in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C..

Designed as a tribute to Rome’s Temple of Vesta, the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol has long been described as the symbolic and physical heart of the Capitol Dome. Surrounded by corridors connecting the House of Representatives and Senate sides, with the National Statuary Hall located to the South and the Old Senate Chamber to the Northeast, the Rotunda at once divides and unifies the Senate and the Assembly. However, above all, the Rotunda has further been considered the most suitable place to pay final tribute to its most honored citizens in what is known as lying in state.

While lying in state is a tradition in which a coffin is placed to allow the public at large the chance to pay their respects for the deceased, for many federal officeholders, this is a rare honor in which the United States grants a deceased official the opportunity to be viewed within the Rotunda of the US Capitol.

Though the concept of lying in state has been practiced since historical times in England, it followed a similar suit in how a modern funeral director would arrange a funeral ceremony, where the deceased of all classes are laid out, prepared and dressed and placed in an open coffin for viewing for two to three days while burial arrangements were made. It was during this time between death and burial that the practice of waiting two to three days allowed confirmation of the deceased.

As the Victorian celebration of death grew more popular, so to had the elaborate practice of Victorian mourning rituals – particularly within nobility and the gentry classes. It was amongst these nobles where public viewing of the deceased became more prominent – especially with regard to grander furnishings, extensive hangings of funerary and mourning black material while vigils were held. However, by the later nineteenth century, this practice soon grew uncommon with the birth of the modern funeral director.

Meanwhile, the US tradition for mourning fallen leaders can be found in the deeply rooted American traditions, dating as far back as 1791, when the death of Benjamin Franklin spurred the first national period of mourning. Half a decade later, the first state presidential funeral took place after William Henry Harrison died in 1841, shortly after taking office. However, it wasn’t until the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, that a nationwide period of mourning swept across America.

With advances in technology, from the telegraph (which was able to relay news of Lincoln’s death instantaneously) to the acceptance of embalming as a form of preservation for the deceased and the mass construction of locomotive transportation all contributed to the impact Lincoln’s’ death had nationwide. However, it was Lincoln, whose body was first to lie in state within the Rotunda of the US Capitol – lying in state specifically means a public viewing in the Capitol Rotunda.

While lying in state is a rare honor for most federal officeholders, particularly as by regulation and custom only Presidents, military commanders and members of Congress are granted the honor, the first individual to receive such an honor was former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay, who died in 1852, the honor has since been extended to 31 people – 11 of whom have been presidents.

The following is a list of former Presidents who were granted the honor of lying in state:

1865 – President Abraham Lincoln (Assassinated while in office)

1881 – President James Garfield (Assassinated while in office)

1901 – President William McKinley (Assassinated while in office)

1923 – President Warren Harding (Died in Office)

1930 – President William Howard Taft

1963 – President John F. Kennedy (Assassinated while in office)

1964 – President Herbert Hoover

1969 – President Dwight Eisenhower

1973 – President Lyndon B. Johnson

2004 – President Ronald Reagan

2006 – President Gerald Ford

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