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Reagan: Funeral Traditions

The Procession: A Historian's Narration

Donald A. Ritchie
Associate Historian, Senate Historical Office
Wednesday, June 9, 2004; 6:00 PM

A three-day ceremonial farewell to Ronald Reagan began Wednesday as Washington prepares for a 34-hour public viewing of the former president's coffin in the Capitol Rotunda followed by a funeral service on Friday at the Washington National Cathedral.

Full Coverage:Public Viewing to Last 34 Hours (Post, June 8)


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The formal funeral procession from Andrews Air Force Base to the U.S. Capitol began at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. At 16th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Reagan's coffin was transferred from the hearse to a horse-drawn caisson for the procession. The state funeral ceremony began in the Rotunda at 7 p.m. for national and international leaders. At 8:30 that night, the body was to lie in state for public viewing until Thursday evening.

Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian in the U.S. Senate Historical Office, was online Wednesday, June 9 at 6 p.m. ET, to narrate and explain events as they occurrred from the procession at 16th Street and Constitution Avenue to the Rotunda on Capitol Hill.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Donald Ritchie, thank you for joining us as part of our live coverage of the funeral of Ronald Reagan.

Right now the motorcade is en route to Washington. The casket will be transferred to the caisson at 16th and Constitution. What is the significance of that location? And can you explain the significance of the caisson?

Donald A. Ritchie: Sixteenth and Constitution is directly across from the White House whose address is 1600 Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania Ave. is closed so that's the point at which the White House can be seen from Constitution. Previous state funeral processions have been along Pennsylvania Ave., but this is a result of security provisions.


As for the caisson, it's a military symbol. It was once used to remove soldiers' bodies from the battlefield and so it is now used traditionally in military funerals and the former president was the commander-in-chief.

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Donald A. Ritchie: Mrs. Reagan is escorted by Gen. Jackman and he is the head of the Washington Military District and they are in charge of state funerals. He will escort her through all the proceedings until the burial.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it true that shortly after a president takes office someone begins planning the funeral for that president?

Donald A. Ritchie: There are always contingency plans. In fact, the major plan for state funerals was drawn up in 1965 after Pres. Kennedy's funeral and it is adjusted for each president. Also, when presidents retire, one of the things they do is to draw up specifics as to how they want their funeral to be. President Reagan was involved in that process back in 1989. In other words, this is the funeral that he wanted.

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Donald A. Ritchie: All of this has been choreographed and planned and practiced in advance. Every detail has been tried to ensure that everything goes perfectly.

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Washington, D.C.: Who writes the rules about state funerals and where are they kept?

Donald A. Ritchie: The Washington Military District draws up protocol for state funerals. It's a very thick volume that they produce. The State Dept. draws up the rules for protocol -- for officials who are attending. And the Capitol Police and the Sargents at Arms of the Senate and House add the security provisions for use of the Capitol. So all of them contribute to the rules and proceedings. In addition, the family adds their specific wishes.

This is all prepared in advance and is held by the Washington Military District.

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Donald A. Ritchie: As part of the military tradition the riderless horse symbolized the warrior who has not returned from battle. This dates back as early as the Roman Empire and was certainly part of state funerals for European monarchy, then was adopted into American state funerals.

The backwards boots symbolize that the rider is not returning.

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Donald A. Ritchie: They're about to go down Constitution Ave. now and one reason why Lincoln's funeral and other 19th Century funerals did not follow that path was that at that time the road was actually a canal.

The first presidential state funeral to use Constitution Ave. was Franklin Roosevelt's in 1945 but the Kennedy funeral reverted to Pennsylvania Ave. Part of that is that Kennedy as a sitting president was in the White House and Pennsylvania Ave. is the most direct route.

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Donald A. Ritchie: President Reagan was a avid equestrian. Probably the most since Theodore Roosevelt. Usually on Wednesdays he went to Quantico Marine Base in Virginia to ride and he also rode at his ranch and he rode in England with the queen. That's not the reason why horses are being used in the procession but it's appropriate given his life-long passion for horses.

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Bethany Beach, Del.: I heard that the bier (is that even the right word?) that President Reagan's casket will rest on in the Capitol was first built for Abraham Lincoln. Is this used for every president?

Donald A. Ritchie: Yes, it's used for every president and also for other official funeral. Each president who is lain in state has used that catafalque. But it's also been used by dignitaries such as Hubert Humphrey and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and on very rare occasions, it is removed from the Capitol. For instance, it was used for Justice Thurgood Marshall's funeral at the Supreme Court.

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> Donald A. Ritchie: This is the first state funeral to enter the Capitol through the West Front. The reason is that the traditional East Front is closed due to construction of the Capitol Visitors Center. They will be using the West Front which is the same front of the Capitol where Reagan took his first oath of office in 1981. He was actually the first president inaugurated on the West Front of the Capitol.

The funeral itself will take place in the Rotunda which is where his second inauguration took place in 1985. It took there because it was so cold that they had to bring it inside.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Do presidents always have closed casket funerals? Is the casket open when they lie in state?

Donald A. Ritchie: In recent years, caskets have been closed. The last open casket lying in state was for Gen. MacArthur in 1964 but most of the presidential caskets have been closed.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Is it odd that President Bush is not here. Is anyone like Dick Cheney making an administration presence known at this ceremony?

Donald A. Ritchie: President Bush is at the G8 summit in Georgia. He will be back in Washington for the memorial service at the National Cathedral on Friday. At tonight's state funeral, Vice President Dick Cheney will represent both the administration and the Senate since he is president of the Senate. He will speak and Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House, and Ted Stevens, the president protem of the Senate, will speak.

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Donald A. Ritchie: Mrs. Reagan will not be climbing the stairs with the coffin but will be driven to the House of Representatives entrance to the Capitol and will meet the procession at the Rotunda. Then the ceremony will take place. After it's completed, the public will be admitted and the Capitol will remain open continuously until Friday morning.

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Washington, D.C.: Wait!; Will the tonight's funeral service be broadcast?

Donald A. Ritchie: Yes, there will be cameras in the Rotunda. One of the biggest changes in the 30 years since the last state funeral is that 30 years ago there were only three television networks. Now there's a large number of cable stations as well as the Internet and all of them have had to be accommodated in some way for the coverage of the funeral. In fact, a very large number of applications were filed for press privileges in the Capitol.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Why isn't President Reagan being buried in Arlington Cemetery? I know Kennedy is buried there... how many other presidents are buried there?

Donald A. Ritchie: Actually only two presidents are buried there: William Howard Taft who was Chief Justice as well as president and then President Kennedy. All the other presidents are buried in their home states. President Reagan will be buried at his presidential library which is a pattern followed since President Roosevelt. Mrs. Kennedy, however, did not want her husband removed to Massachusetts and believed that Arlington was a more appropriate setting.

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Donald A. Ritchie: Those in the motorcade are family, government officials and security, essentially.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Why didn't Richard Nixon have a state funeral?

Donald A. Ritchie: A state funeral is officially a funeral for a sitting or former president but his family chose to have his funeral at his presidential library. But it still is ranked as a state funeral. All of the living former presidents including Ronald Reagan attended that funeral. This is a choice by the family. In 1973 both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died. Mrs. Truman chose not to have a Washington funeral for her husband while Mrs. Johnson did have a state funeral for Lyndon Johnson.

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Donald A. Ritchie: When the caisson gets to 4th Street there will be a fly-over of military planes. They'll be flying at about 1,000 feet which is quite low and this is again part of the military tradition and there will be a 21-gun salute using Howitzer cannons, again part of the military tradition. In some respects it's reminiscent of an inauguration. Some of these traditions are both a part of both inaugurations and state funerals.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Who decides who the speakers will be? Why no Democrats that may have served in the Senate or House when President Reagan was in office?

Donald A. Ritchie: Speakers at the ceremonies are chosen either by the family or the congressional leadership. In this case, the three speakers are the constitutional officers of Congress, that is, officers whose positions are defined by the Constitution. There's room for variation. Mrs. Kennedy asked Mike Mansfield who was the Senate Majority Leader, which is not a constitutional office, to speak at President Kennedy's funeral because he was such as close friend of the president. Mansfield gave a memorably eloquent eulogy but again, this is both a personal as well as congressional leadership choice.

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Donald A. Ritchie: One reason why everyone is standing in the Rotunda is to have as many members of Congress and other officials attend, there's not room to sit down.

The first state funeral in the Rotunda was that of Lincoln's and the dome had just been completed two years earlier.

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Donald A. Ritchie: It's about a mile and a half from 16th Street to the West Front of the Capitol.

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Donald A. Ritchie: One reason why the planning books for state funerals have grown so thick is because so many more security provisions are not taken into consideration.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: What's the difference between a state funeral and a national funeral?

Donald A. Ritchie: The government conducts the funeral in a government building for a state funeral. Most presidential funerals have also had a religious component and that has taken place at a church. President Kennedy's state funeral was in the Rotunda and religious services were held at St. Matthew's Cathedral. For Reagan, there will be religious services at the Washington National Cathedral and this is being referred to as the national funeral.

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Donald A. Ritchie: 6:58 p.m. They just passed the place where President Reagan took his first oath of office. At this point, they will carry the coffin up the outside steps to the Rotunda.

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Donald A. Ritchie: Mrs. Reagan has gone into Capitol via the House carriage entrance and then will proceed to the Rotunda.

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Donald A. Ritchie: For more information on state funerals, the Senate Historical Office maintains a Web site, www.senate.gov (Art and History).

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Donald A. Ritchie: Thank you, Donald Ritchie, for being with us today.

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