A history of lying in state at the U.S. Capitol

The first president to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda was Abraham Lincoln, and this week former President George H.W. Bush became the 12th commander in chief to earn the distinct honor. He died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94.

The honor of lying in state is often reserved for U.S. presidents and members of Congress. Just four private citizens have been given the similarly somber distinction of lying in honor. This American tradition, borrowed from British royalty, began in 1852 with Kentucky political giant Henry Clay. Dozens more have since had the same send-off. Here are a few.

Cover photo: AP

Henry Clay

Mathew Brady via Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln


After his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln’s body was first displayed in the East Room of the White House. Days later, he was brought to the Capitol Rotunda, where tens of thousands of Americans filed past his open casket to bid farewell.

The Capitol was draped in mourning, with black cloth covering all paintings and statues but one, of George Washington, who was fitted with a black sash. A catafalque, French for a decorated wooden framework, was built to hold Lincoln’s casket and is still used for others lying in state.

Unknown Soldier of WWI


Eight months after Congress approved the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, one unidentified service member — buried initially in a WWI cemetery in France — was exhumed, transported home and reinterred in Washington. But first, the unidentified soldier lay in state at the Capitol, a representative of all U.S. soldiers who were killed during WWI. This ceremony was repeated for unidentified soldiers in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy's casket in Capitol Rotunda.


Jackie Kennedy kisses the casket.


Douglas MacArthur


J. Edgar Hoover

Charles Tasnadi/AP

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Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson

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Nearly 150 years after Henry Clay became the first person to lie in state at the Capitol, Chestnut and Gibson became the first private citizens to receive the honor. The officers were fatally shot by a 41-year-old man who barged through a Capitol metal detector and emptied his six-chamber pistol. President Bill Clinton and thousands of others streamed silently past the officers’ flag-draped coffins. Clinton said during the official tribute that the nation was “profoundly grateful that, in doing their duty, they saved lives, they consecrated this house.”

Ronald Reagan

BILL O'LEARY/The Washington Post

Rosa Parks

Michel duCille/The Washington Post

The public pays their last respect.

Michel duCille/The Washington Post

U.S. Representative for Florida Kendrick Meek and his son at the memorial.

Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post

Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., became the first (and only) woman and the second African American to lie in honor in the Capitol. Outside, thousands waited for hours in lines that snaked across the Mall, holding signs that read “Thank You, Rosa Parks.” Inside, the House chaplain, Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, eulogized her: “Rosa Parks is still riding an eternal bus. We say to Mrs. Parks: Ride on. Ride on. Ride on to the Table of Equal Justice.”

Billy Graham

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

Graham, who ministered to presidents and millions of others worldwide, was just the fourth private citizen and first religious leader in American history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol. President Trump, Vice President Pence and their wives attended the memorial service. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) called Graham “America’s pastor” and President Trump recalled the time his father took him to see the man preach at Yankee Stadium in New York in 1957. “People came in droves to hear that great young preacher,” Trump said.

John McCain

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., served his country for decades, both at war and in politics. He was captured and tortured for five years during the Vietnam War, returned home to serve in Congress for three decades and twice ran for president of the United States. After a year-long battle with brain cancer, McCain died at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., in late August. McCain’s mother, who at 106 outlived her son, was wheeled to his casket to say goodbye.

George H.W. Bush

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Just 36 Americans have laid in state or honor at the U.S. Capitol — an elite group of American history’s most revered public servants, military leaders and private citizens. Now, their ranks will include President George H.W. Bush.

On Monday, the former commander was carried into the Capitol rotunda as the sun set on Washington and the former president’s son, George W. Bush, also a former president, solemnly watched on. A ceremony was followed by a public viewing which will run through Tuesday evening. A motorcade Wednesday will transport the 41st president’s body to the Washington National Cathedral for the formal memorial service.