Two Hundred Years Of Presidential Funerals
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page C14
Shortly before his death in 1799, George Washington said he wanted a quiet burial, "without parade or funeral oration." He also asked for a three-day wait period -- possibly for fear of being buried alive, which sometimes happened back then.
Despite his wishes, hundreds trooped to Mount Vernon for the funeral. The procession included uniformed soldiers holding their rifles backward, a sign of respect for a fallen leader. As word of the first president's death spread, sadness swept the nation. Imitation funerals were held, the military wore black armbands for six weeks, and homes were draped in black. The tributes went on for months.
Today's presidential funerals are quicker affairs. When Ronald Reagan died Saturday in California, bulletins flashed worldwide. Yesterday the former president's body was flown here to lie in state in the Capitol until tomorrow's funeral, after which the casket will be taken back to California for burial.
But some things haven't changed in 205 years. As befits a national figure, Washington got a 21-gun salute and so will Reagan. Washington's funeral procession featured a riderless horse, as did Reagan's.
What follows are snippets about the final tributes paid to some of America's presidents:
When One Funeral Isn't Enough
Abraham Lincoln had more than a dozen funerals in the two weeks following his assassination in 1865. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the 1,700-mile route of the train that bore his body -- along with that of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died three years earlier -- from Washington back to Illinois. Lincoln, the nation's first murdered president, also was the first to be embalmed (which slows decay). That allowed open-casket services during the long journey. Even so, an undertaker on the train had to touch up the corpse several times for public viewing.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral also involved a long train ride: 1,100 miles from Warm Springs, Georgia (where the president died in April 1945), to Washington and then to the family's estate in New York. Roosevelt was the nation's longest-serving chief executive and had just begun his fourth term. He led the country through the Great Depression and World War II, yet his tomb lists only his name and dates of birth and death. Fala, Roosevelt's beloved Scottish terrier, is buried a few yards from him.
What to Wear?
Lincoln was buried in the black suit he had worn a few weeks earlier to his second inauguration. His successor, Andrew Johnson, was wrapped in the American flag, his head resting on a copy of the Constitution. John Tyler's coffin was draped in the Confederate flag.
Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1969 funeral was held at Washington National Cathedral, where Reagan's will be. Ike, as Eisenhower was known, was a five-star general but chose to be buried in his modest World War II uniform: a short green coat known as an "Ike jacket" and light-colored pants. He had just three medals on his jacket and was laid to rest in a standard $80 military coffin in his Kansas home town.
We don't know what John Quincy Adams wore, but historians tell us his fancy coffin was too big for its vault, so his funeral had to be stopped while stonemasons were called to widen the opening.
Location, Location, Location
Nearly all of the nation's 37 deceased presidents are buried in their home states. Virginian James Monroe was buried in New York but the Virginia General Assembly later ordered his remains taken to Richmond.
Only one president is buried in Washington ( Woodrow Wilson, at Washington Cathedral). Two are buried at Arlington National Cemetery ( William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy).
All Shapes and Sizes
Some presidential sendoffs have been small ( Grover Cleveland's had fewer than 100 guests and Calvin Coolidge had a five-minute ceremony) and some have been large (60,000 marched in Ulysses Grant's procession and 250,000 filed past Kennedy's casket in the Capitol).
The military has developed a 138-page plan for state funerals. But nothing in the plan would have prevented what happened at Andrew Jackson's funeral in 1845.
Jackson, a crusty old warrior, had a parrot that he taught to say nasty things. In the middle of the ex-president's funeral, the story goes, the parrot flew to the dome atop the tomb and shrieked a string of foul words.
-- Marylou Tousignant
© 2004 The Washington Post Company