Menu

The Death of a President: Traditions and Rituals of State Funerals

The modern presidency operates as if by script, with carefully chosen crowds, painstakingly shaped words and backdrops picked for just the right effect.

As in life, so, too, in death.

The funeral of an ex-president follows rituals soaked in tradition and specified right down to the exact speed of a procession, 20 miles per hour. That doesn't mean one president's funeral is like another's — far from it — and Gerald Ford's may not have the full-throated grandeur of Ronald Reagan's in June 2004.

President Ford Dies at 93 | PHOTOS | QUOTATIONS | TIMELINE | Bush 'Saddened' by Death of Gerald Ford | Ford No Stranger to Impeachment

Planners are guided by the wishes of the family and any instructions from the president himself on how elaborate the events will be, how much of it takes place in Washington and more. Ford's collegial character and unassuming style in the White House are expected to be reflected in his presidential funeral arrangements, details of which have yet to be announced.

The Military District of Washington and the family will detail funeral plans, which are expected to involve a small private ceremony in Palm Desert, Calif., and an opportunity for the public to pay respects there before the body is flown to Washington for a period of public mourning in the capital.

"Until the family has had a chance to meet with our commanding general and go over the events of the next days, we will not know what that schedule will be," said Barbara Owens, state funeral planner for public affairs for the Joint Task Force, National Capital Region in Washington.

Presidents are typically involved in their own funeral planning, she noted early Wednesday, and "they can choose to have a simple funeral; they can choose to have a full honor funeral. It simply is up to the family."

Ford's presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he is expected to be laid to rest on the grounds, announced that its lobby would be open 24 hours a day starting Wednesday and until further notice, while the rest of the museum would be closed during this period.

What happens in Washington, particularly, unfolds according to guidelines that go back to the mid-1800s and have been shaped here and there over time.

If a chosen ceremony requires mourners to be seated, for example, seating arrangements are detailed with precision. The presidential party is followed by chiefs of state, arranged alphabetically by the English spelling of their countries. Royalty representing chiefs of state come next, and then heads of governments followed by other officials.

Reagan's state funeral was the first of its kind in more than 30 years, since Lyndon Johnson died in 1973. The president, former presidents and a president-elect are all entitled to a state funeral, but the family decides if they actually get one, or just how involved it will be.

Richard Nixon's family, acting on his wishes, opted out of the Washington traditions when he died in 1994, his presidency shortened and forever tainted by Watergate.

The rules and what actually happens are based on what has come before.

John F. Kennedy's funeral services were modeled after those of Abraham Lincoln, at the request of the new widow, Jacqueline, in her first public statement after the assassination. Historians poured over musty documents by flashlight in the middle of the night as the stunned country waited for a plan — the Library of Congress' automatic lights could not be rigged to come on after hours.

Reagan was the 10th president to lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Like the great majority of presidents, Ford served in Congress, and a public viewing is expected in the Rotunda after President Bush and other dignitaries pay their respects to Ford there. Reagan and Jimmy Carter did not serve in Congress.

Eight presidents have had funeral processions down Pennsylvania Avenue, including all four sitting presidents to die by assassination — Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy.

Two presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Kennedy and William H. Taft. Reagan was buried on the hilltop grounds of his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., in a dramatic sunset ceremony capping a week of official public mourning.

Only sitting presidents and their immediate family have ever laid in the White House for viewing.

Ex-president John Adams didn't even lay in the White House, though his son, John Quincy Adams, was the sitting president at the time of the death. The older Adams died on the same day as Thomas Jefferson — July 4, 1826 — possibly complicating his chances for a White House viewing.

The Capitol has a more expansive policy for laying in state. Congressman Henry Clay, in 1852, was the first to lay in the Capitol Rotunda. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover laid in the Capitol in 1972. Police officers killed in 1998 while protecting the Capitol also lay in state there.

The first presidential state funeral was for William H. Harrison, who in 1841 became the first president to die in office, just 30 days after his inauguration. Alexander Hunter, a Washington merchant, was charged with putting on a first-of-its-kind American ceremony.

He draped the White House in black. Official buildings and many private households followed suit, starting a now-lost tradition that was repeated at Lincoln's funeral 25 years later.

For Harrison, Hunter ordered up a curtained and upholstered black and white car that was drawn by black-clad horses, each accompanied by a black groom dressed and turbaned entirely in white. Along the side of the car marched white pallbearers, dressed in black.

Before Harrison, the funerals of former presidents were accompanied by little pomp in the capital. There were numerous ceremonies across the country for George Washington after his death Dec. 14, 1799, but his actual funeral was a local affair in Mount Vernon, Va.

In addition to presidents, anyone chosen by a president can have a state funeral.