Mourning a President

Bruce Crumley reveals what happens when a president dies

The death of a sitting or former president represents a singularly sorrowful moment for American citizens. It’s a time of sadness and reflection that inspires supporters and opponents alike to mark the passing of someone who served the country in the highest possible position.

Not surprisingly, state funerals for U.S. departed presidents – both recent and past – follow strict tradition and rules of protocol. Yet at the same time, some have been shaped by an entirely wild-card factor: whether the presidential family wishes for a state funeral to be staged or not, and just how involved public services become.

Caisson bearing body of slain US President John F. Kennedy passing graves of American war heroes as it heads toward his burial spot in Arlington Cemetery (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

No Wake for Me, Thanks

Honoring his wishes while living, for example, the family of Richard Nixon declined official ceremonies in Washington when the former president died in 1994, due to concerns that too much attention would be focused on the Watergate scandal.

Prior to his death in 1799, meanwhile, George Washington requested a quiet, private internment "without parade or funeral oration" on his Mount Vernon estate. Despite that, throngs of people – including soldiers riding horses backwards as a sign of respect – converged to attend the service, which was then replicated by countless imitation funerals around the country.

Memorial wreath, from a female seminary,1826 (From the collection of Adams National Historical Park)

Setting Funeral Tradition

By and large, however, most presidential funerals have respected proceedings initiated in 1841, when William Taft – the first president to die while in office – was honored with the first state presidential funeral. The 1865 funeral of Abraham Lincoln – the first president to be assassinated – set the standard for modern presidential services, including the display of the embalmed body lying in state.

Reflecting the admiration and adoration of Lincoln even in his lifetime, the slain president was given no fewer than 12 funeral services in the weeks it took his coffin to travel from Washington DC to its Springfield, Illinois burial site. Greeting the train bearing Lincoln’s body in Springfield was his steed Old Bob, who was used to honor the tradition initiated at Washington’s funeral of a riderless horse accompanying the procession draped in black, and wearing a backwards saddle.

Lincoln's Rider-Less Horse, Old Bob, 1865 (From the collection of Ford's Theatre)

Modern Presidential Funerals

Just over 98 years later, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy ordered the state funeral of her assassinated husband, John F. Kennedy, respecting the precise the protocols established with Lincoln’s service. That included the body lying in state, where over a quarter of a million mourners paid their respects. It also required staging one of the eight processions honoring fallen presidents down Pennsylvania Avenue – a convoy whose rate of progress is strictly set to 20 miles per hour.

Members of the Kennedy family leaving St. Matthew's Cathedral for Arlington National Cemetery during funeral of slain President John F. Kennedy, 1963, George Silk (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

In total, 13 U.S. presidents have been honored with state funerals – eight after having died while still in office. Initially a 30-day period of national mourning is decreed, with flags flying at half-mast. Following Lyndon Johnson’s 1973 death, his state of mourning overlapped with that of former-president Harry Truman, who died less than a month before.

JFK’s Funeral, Arthur Rickerby (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Military Salutes

In most cases, the day after a president dies is marked with military guards firing rifle salutes every 30 minutes from sun-up to sun-set. On the days presidents are laid to rest, those units fire 21-gun salutes beginning at mid-day, and a 50-gun salute – one for every state in the union – when the flag is lowered.

The last two presidential funerals in Washington DC to date were those of Ronald Reagan in 2004, prior to his internment in Simi Valley; and that of Gerald Ford, whose death in 2006 at the age of 93 years, eight months and 68 days made him the oldest president in US history.

Funeral Procession for President Roosevelt to Hyde Park, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (From the collection of the U.S. National Archives)

Learn more about the presidency and American Democracy.

Words by Bruce Crumley
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