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State funerals bound by rules, history, judgment

Ronald Reagan will be memorialized at the first presidential state funeral in more than three decades, in a ritual rich in traditions from America's earliest days.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ronald Reagan will be memorialized at the first presidential state funeral in more than three decades, a ritual rich in traditions from the country’s earliest days.

Presidents, former presidents and presidents-elect are entitled to state funerals. It is left to the family to decide whether one should be held and how involved it should be.

No detail in the planning is too small.

The military, for instance, has a 138-page planning document that dictates everything from seating charts to floral arrangements. Processions must move at 20 miles per hour. The footsteps of military guards are elaborately prescribed.

Chain of command
Since Reagan’s family requested the full funeral protocol, President Bush put into motion a detailed chain of command, with most arrangements delegated to Washington-area Army officials. Military planners flew to California to consult with the family.

Reagan died Saturday at his home in California. His body will lie in state at his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles.

His remains will be flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The funeral, undoubtedly attended by world leaders, will be at Washington National Cathedral. Bush will speak at the funeral.

The State Department’s protocol office draws up seating arrangements for foreign guests at religious ceremonies.

The rules and how they are implemented are patterned on what has gone before.

President Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963 was modeled after Abraham Lincoln’s, as requested by Jacqueline Kennedy in her first public statement after her husband’s assassination.

Historians pored over musty documents in the middle of the night by flashlight — the Library of Congress’ automatic lights could not be rigged to come on after hours — as the stunned country waited for a plan.

Looking to history
Reagan’s family also may be looking to history:

  • Nine presidents lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda; all but two had served in Congress. Reagan did not.
  • Seven presidents have had funeral processions down Pennsylvania Avenue, including all four presidents to have died by assassination: Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy.
  • Kennedy and William Howard Taft are the only two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Only sitting presidents or their immediate families have lain in state in the White House.

Ex-president John Adams did not even lay in the White House, even though he died while his son, John Quincy Adams, was president. The older Adams, the country’s second president, and Thomas Jefferson, the third, died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — which perhaps complicated Adams’ 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 lay in the Capitol in 1972. Two police officers shot to death in 1998 while protecting the Capitol also lay in state there.

Seating arrangements
On the matter of seating arrangements for the funeral, 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.

During the ceremony at the cathedral, generals sit in the north nave, family members in the south nave.

“The only real purpose of that sort of etiquette and protocol is to make the most people comfortable,” said William Seale, a White House historian and author. “It’s a trying time, a difficult time. You have to take care of the crowds, the emotions.”

When death occurs outside Washington, the remains can be shipped back to the capital, where they are attended by a military honor guard.

After a day of repose, the body is taken to the Capitol Rotunda for an opened- or closed-casket 24-hour stay, then moved again, preferably at noon the next day.

Rites for President Harrison
The first presidential state funeral was for William Henry Harrison. He caught a cold during his inaugural address in 1841 and died of pneumonia 30 days later, becoming the first president to die in office.

Alexander Hunter, a Washington merchant, was commissioned to put on a first-of-its-kind American ceremony.

Hunter 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 a curtained and upholstered black and white carriage, which was drawn by black-clad horses, each accompanied by a black groom dressed and turbaned entirely in white. Along the side marched white pallbearers, dressed in black.

Before Harrison, the funerals of former presidents saw little pomp in the capital. Numerous ceremonies were held across the country for George Washington after his death Dec. 14, 1799, but his funeral was a local affair at Mount Vernon, Va.

Former President Lyndon Johnson, in 1973, was the last ex-president to have had an official Washington ceremony. Richard Nixon was the last former president accorded a state funeral, but his family, acting on his wishes, opted out of the Washington traditions when he died in 1994.

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