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In Washington, Final Goodbyes Are Steeped In Tradition -- And Law


Washington, D.C. has come together this week to honor former President George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday at the age of 94 – less than eight months after the passing of his wife of 73 years, Barbara. Among the many professional achievements for which the 41st president will be remembered, some of his personal achievements will be recorded in history, as well: the former president currently holds the record as the commander in chief to live the longest, and the longest-married president of the United States.


A president’s death immediately sets in motion a series of events that, as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes, are governed more “by custom … than statute.” There is, however, one activity that is set by law: after a president dies, U.S. flags are to be flown at half-staff for 30 days. Across the country this week – from government buildings to fire stations to primary schools – flags were lowered in honor of the 41st president. (


(Incidentally, under the same law, the flag is also is to be flown at half-staff for 10 days whenever a sitting vice president, chief justice of the Supreme Court, or speaker of the House of Representatives passes away, and from the date of death of a sitting associate justice of the Supreme Court or cabinet-level secretary until their internment.)


The customs of honoring our fallen presidents – the pomp and circumstance of what we now refer to as a state funeral – have evolved over time. President William Henry Harrison in 1841 was the first president to be honored with a state funeral. President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. After events in Washington, D.C., the casket carrying Lincoln’s body was transported 1,700 miles through New York City and back to Springfield, Ill. Millions of Americans lines streets and train tracks, paying their final respects along the Lincoln’s last journey home.


These traditions, and the ones that have played out this week, all have their origins in how Americans honored their founders upon their deaths.


Benjamin Franklin was the first American founding father to die. When he passed away in 1790, the nation observed a period of mourning, though the U.S. Senate, where Franklin had several political enemies, refused to pass a resolution formally mourning him. (See? American politics has always been petty.) Eight years later, both chambers of Congress enacted resolutions honoring President George Washington with 69 days of public mourning following the first president’s death. (Washington also was interred at Mount Vernon with military honors.)


The second and third U.S. presidents both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. While Jefferson’s family held a small, private funeral at Monticello, Adams was celebrated with the firing of ceremonial cannons, a procession that included the governor of Massachusetts, and a funeral service that was attended by more than 4,000 people.


The proceedings for each state funeral differ slightly, but events are heavily influenced by military tradition. According to Joint Force Headquarters, the custom of using a caisson to carry a casket in a public procession – now a staple of state funerals – had its origins in the 1800s when these vehicles carried fallen soldiers from the battlefield. Funerals in the 1800s for mounted officers or enlisted man also often featured a riderless horse. Alexander Hamilton – never a president, but the first U.S. Treasury secretary – was the first American to be given this honor. (Lincoln was the first president to be officially honored with a riderless horse.) Americans assembled to honor John F. Kennedy in 1963 and President Ronald Reagan in 2004 also witnessed this tradition.


Other than the military honors and traditions, presidential funerals are very personal, and former presidents and their families typically exert significant influence over the plans. The White House Historical Association argues, “In many ways, funeral services are final conversation with the nation, and illustrate something about the man and the way in which he wishes to be remembered.” Not all presidents elect to have state funerals. Despite his resignation, President Richard Nixon was entitled to the traditional pomp and circumstance, but his family chose to have a service at the Nixon Library in California instead.


President Gerald Ford, eschewing the traditional procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, asked that a motorcade proceed through Alexandria, Va., the city where he lived while serving in Congress. The personalization also is evident in the eulogists. President Bush requested that his son, the 43rd U.S. president, speak. He also selected former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Bush and Mulroney served at the same time and together negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement.


Presidents are not the only individuals allowed state funerals. Though rare, a sitting president may grant a state funeral to anyone, but must, under the law, formally notify Congress of the decision. In 1868, Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the first non-president in American history to receive the honor of a state funeral. Stevens’ remains were transported by a cavalry regiment to the Capitol where he lay in state in the rotunda on Aug. 13, 1868 until the morning of Aug. 14. The most recent state funeral for a non-president was for General Douglas McArthur in 1964. Sen. John McCain, who died this past August, lay in state under the Capitol rotunda, but received a full dress funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral – not a state funeral.


President Bush, of course, will have a full state funeral today, but today’s events are just a small part of the celebration of his life. After departing Houston this Monday, President Bush’s body was greeted at the U.S. Capitol in the afternoon by congressional leadership. Through Wednesday morning, the public had a chance to pay their respects to the former commander in chief as he lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. After a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral, a flight carrying the casket will depart Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and return to Texas. President Bush will lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston until Thursday morning.


As former commander in chief, President Bush could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He instead chose to be interred at Texas A&M University, the site of his presidential library. There he will join Barbara and their daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at age three.

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