In California, and here in Washington, the lines will be long.
The citizens will halt the busy dailyness of their lives and wait for hours to linger a moment beside a box that hides a man who is no more, present tense changed to past. There have been 29 persons who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda, according to the Senate Historical Office. Ronald Reagan will be the 30th, and the 10th president.
This is an archaic ritual, this business of queuing up to finally be close to a leader so protected and removed in life, and yet it remains vital. It is a ritual the republic craves. The body of statesman Henry Clay was the first to be displayed in the Rotunda in 1852; in 1865, hundreds of thousands of Americans pressed forward to see the embalmed body of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln as his funeral train rolled across 1,700 miles to Springfield, Ill., Lincoln's burial site..
"People want to see it. Witness is a big part of it, isn't it?" suggests Thomas Lynch, the undertaker-poet who has written extensively of death and mourning. "We are helpless before death. We can't undo it. This has to do with connections. When all we can do is show up, then that is what we do."
The people will shuffle by, silently, "paying respect," in the language of this particular public display. They would not wait on line for a mere photo, or a memory display. Mourners need the sure knowledge that inside the closed casket are the remains of a man. The body must be present, Lynch says. It is encoded in the species.
"We rail against it. We try other options -- memorial events, or bodiless funerals. We think it's tidier, but it's like a baptism without the baby," says Lynch. "For a nation grieving, or marking death, we have this need to acknowledge that here is somebody who was and now isn't."
As a ritual, lying in state has had important symbolic value, whether the body on the bier was an 18th-century Tahitian chief swaddled in a simple cloth and witnessed by British explorer Capt. James Cook, or Mother Teresa, her face arranged in peaceful repose in her glass coffin, or the Queen Mother, whose drawing power surprised all the royal funeral planners, when the few hours set aside for public mourning were wholly insufficient to accommodate her grief-laden countrymen. Its more modern cousin is the impromptu shrine: supermarket bouquets and teddy bears laid out on the sidewalk.
But such a display deprives the bereft of the comfort of rules that even the simplest funeral extends to the most ordinary person: the safety of offering condolences, the sending of flowers, the wearing of black.
The solemn visitation by the masses "really helps in a moment of national crisis or tragedy or sorrow," says Gary Laderman, an Emory University religion professor who has written about the funerals of presidents and the way Americans grieve. "There is the man who is important to his own family, but there is a recognition that the body politic needs to be reaffirmed. And that expression of national community solidarity happens with the body in its presence."
George Washington died in his bed and was buried on the grounds of Mount Vernon. Deprived of the actual body, communities across the new United States held faux funerals, as if the body were present. "Philadelphia citizens not only saw a mock coffin, but also a symbolic representation of the Mount Vernon ceremony," Laderman wrote in "The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883." After Lincoln's assassination, his body was considered public property, and as the funeral train made its stops, newspapers in each town wrote in often graphic detail about how his corpse appeared. The accounts seemed not so much gratuitous as grateful for the technological advances in mortuary science. "He lies in sleep," wrote a correspondent in the New York World, "but it is the sleep of marble."
Presidents James Garfield, William McKinley and Warren Harding all were displayed in open caskets, according to the Senate Historical Office, as were most of the other statesmen who lay beneath the Rotunda's soaring dome.
Aides to John F. Kennedy were keenly sensitive to the public's need to gaze one last time on their young president, and there was anguished deliberation over whether the casket should be open as he lay in state. His widow, Jackie, insisted the casket be closed, but Robert McNamara told her: "It can't be done, Jackie. Everybody wants to see a head of state," according to "The Death of a President," written by Kennedy aide William Manchester. "I don't care. It's the most awful, morbid thing: They have to remember Jack alive," Jackie responded. At the time, Robert Kennedy agreed with McNamara because "it was an exceptional situation," Manchester wrote. "He didn't see how a president's funeral could disregard the public; private preferences had to be set aside."
In the end, Jackie prevailed, but the media were inundated with complaints. The public wanted one last opportunity to see the man to say goodbye, but even without the open casket, at least 115,000 mourners passed by Kennedy's coffin.
In a fast world of disposables and recyclables, the public death ceremony falls back on objects of permanence, with names that get less use than words from the 15th round of the National Spelling Bee: the catafalque, which in our state funerals is the rough pine board bier first used to hold Lincoln's casket, or the cortege, the name for the procession itself, or the caisson, the horse-drawn wagon used as a hearse. The stiff-armed salutes of Marines in honor dress, the orchestration of ceremony first inscribed a century and a half ago with quill pen, these are the ways man tries to note his presence, and his passing.
"We are processing this," says Lynch, by sending President Reagan on a choreographed procession "from this life to the next." There will be soaring rhetoric and hymns of salvation, but they cannot be enough.
Perhaps the most eloquent argument for being with what remains came yesterday in a wordless moment:
At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the widow removed her glasses, laid her head briefly on the closed casket and began to weep.