In the spring of 1969, Mamie Eisenhower arrived at the Friendship Heights funeral home Joseph Gawler’s Sons (5130 Wisconsin Ave. NW), where her husband lay in state in the Jefferson Room. Former president Eisenhower had died of heart
failure on March 28 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gawler’s, which opened at its original site near the White House in 1850 ( Joseph Gawler was originally a cabinetmaker but was soon called on to build coffins), had prepared Eisenhower’s body for the elaborate rites of a state funeral, just as it had those of other presidents, Supreme Court justices and members of Congress.

On March 30, Gawler’s staff would transport Eisenhower via hearse to Washington National Cathedral, then on to the U.S. Capitol, where he would lie in state on the same catafalque that had borne the remains of President Lincoln 104 years earlier. The Gawler’s staff would stay with the late president until, accompanied by family members, he would make the 40-hour train trip to his place of interment: Abilene, Kan.

Before all of that would begin, though, the former first lady made a suggestion to funeral director John Gawler. “Evidently Mrs. Eisenhower told Mr. Gawler she thought the room would be much more pleasant if he could [line it with] the same burled-chestnut wood paneling found at Camp David,” says Duane Hills, president of Gawler’s.
Legend holds that John Gawler located the defunct mill that had produced the paneling, paid the owners to reopen and make more, then hired White House staff to install it. Hills has since procured on eBay “I Like Ike” campaign buttons, a portrait of the general and other mementos, adding them to the space now dubbed the Eisenhower Room.

Several times a year, employees of Gawler’s practice rituals associated with large-scale funerals such as Eisenhower’s with the U.S. Army Military District of Washington – from carrying coffins up the stairs of the cathedral to chalking out where members of an honor guard will stand.

“We are with a body from start to finish,” says Hills, a genial history buff who gently corrects a reporter’s use of the term “mortician.” (He prefers “funeral director.”)
Hills, 56, has taken part in state funerals attended by thousands, and in about a dozen attended by no one. “The saddest thing in my professional life,” he says.

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After 37 years absorbing oceans of his clients’ tears, he has made his peace with death, including his own.

“I’d like to be cremated, and I’d like my ashes to be buried in a cemetery,” Hills says. “I’d like people to know I was here
for a while.”

Practice
Sandbags the weight of an adult human are placed in the caskets used during state-funeral rehearsals.

After life
Gawler’s is retained to cremate about half of the bodies it cares for after death.

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