From George Washington to George H.W. Bush: The history of presidential funerals

Former President George H.W. Bush died in his Houston home Friday, becoming the 39th American head of state to die since the country’s founding.

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” eulogized Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, after George Washington died at his home, Mount Vernon, on Dec. 14, 1799. Lee was commissioned by Congress to pen the eulogy for the man who has been remembered as the “father of our country.”

Since Washington’s death, the loss of one of its former leaders has united America in a way few other events can. Americans tend to put political animosity aside and to momentarily forgive a president’s faults, to honor the fallen leader and to celebrate the shared history reflected in his time in office.

 

According to the National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, a 69-day period of public mourning followed Washington’s death. Congress resolved to wear black for the remainder of the session, published a presidential proclamation that called for people to wear black armbands for 30 days and planned a funeral in Philadelphia to remember Washington with a “solemn and august pageantry.”

Each president’s death since Washington has been commemorated with similar solemnity and pageantry, though the specifics and form of the memorial have evolved and varied according to the wishes of the president and his family. Still, a general framework for presidential funerals has formed over time.

Every president is asked to begin planning his own funeral service shortly after taking office, according to the White House Historical Association. The coordination for the event is handled by the Army Military District of Washington. They traditionally last for five days and include a procession to the Capitol where the fallen president lies in state before a funeral service.

Bush will become the 12th former president to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Only two of them were given the honor in the 19th century – Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, both of whom were assassinated (the first person ever to lie in state was Henry Clay, 13 years before Lincoln). Warren G. Harding was the first president who was not assassinated to lie in state. Two of the last nine presidents to die did not lie in state in the Capitol: Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.

A joint task force of almost 4,000 service members and civilians from all branches of the military will be putting Bush’s funeral plans into place. The Joint Task Force-National Capital Region also handled the state funerals for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

“We, the men and women of the Department of Defense, are honored and proud to support the Bush family and will do so with the utmost respect,” said Maj. Gen. Michael L. Howard, who heads the joint task force, in a statement. “This state funeral is a culmination of years of planning and rehearsal to ensure the support the military renders President Bush is nothing less than a first-class tribute.”

 

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