This week the country is observing three days of official remembrance of the late president George H.W. Bush as his burial approaches. While there are limits to the religiosity of government-sponsored pageantry, many of the rites and customs that surround a president’s passing have deep faith connections.
Such events, in fact, reflect our civic religion, some experts say — our shared spiritual values, expressions that can bind and buoy an increasingly diverse, and even non-religious, America.
“The need to create meaningful rituals around death is very deep in our DNA,” said S. Brent Plate, an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. “Death erases some of the dividing elements between religions. It shows us we are all human, all mortal. So this week is about the death of George Bush, but it is really about the collective faith of us all.”
Here is some context for the rituals you will see as the nation pays its last respects to its 41st president:
Keeping a vigil over the body
As Bush’s body traveled to Washington from Houston, where he and the late first lady Barbara Bush lived after 1993, it was accompanied all the way. In addition to family members and friends, a group of former staffers flew with the body, and an entourage of military service members was always nearby.
Like all presidents, Bush is being given a state funeral, a complicated and highly orchestrated set of military and state traditions that are secular in appearance but have foundations in religion.
The practice of watching over a body springs from the oldest religious traditions. Scholars say the ancient Romans took the custom with them as they conquered the Mediterranean and Europe. By the Middle Ages, the practice was wrapped into Christianity and came with the first European settlers to the New World.
American Christians used to "sit up with the dead" until burial in a “wake.” There were often prayers, hymns and lit candles at the head and the feet of the body. But with the rise of funeral homes in the early 20th century, the home-based wake declined and evolved into “visitations” at funeral parlors.
Jews and Muslims also have a tradition of watching over the dead. In Judaism, “shomrim,” or guards, stay with the body until it is buried. Jewish tradition holds that the soul stays by the body until it is underground.
David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, a nonprofit concerned with Jewish funeral and mourning practices, said that while vigil customs focus on the corpse, they benefit the living too.
“It is like an honor guard to show respect but also to provide a measure of comfort to the family so they know their loved one is not alone,” Zinner said. “And the people who do this are able to reflect on the person’s life, on how we are all mortal.”
Lying in state
From Monday evening until Wednesday morning, Bush’s body will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Thousands are expected to file past the coffin to pay their respects beneath a ceiling painting, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” in which the first president rests in heaven among the angels.
Lying in state is an honor afforded only the nation’s greatest public servants or military leaders. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lay in state last August, and Gerald Ford was the last former president to be so honored in 2007. The Rev. Billy Graham, a friend of Bush’s, lay in honor — a slightly different ceremony given to some civilians of note — last February.
Bush’s flag-draped coffin rests on the Lincoln catafalque, a wooden platform originally built for Abraham Lincoln’s coffin in 1865 that is draped in black. It has borne the bodies of presidents, Supreme Court justices and soldiers and become a kind of relic of U.S. civic religion.
“A familiar object like this allows us, even in the midst of an unknowable experience like death, to have something recognizable,” said Plate, who is the author of “A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects.” “It is an object that has an agency, a power that gets transmitted across these various deaths. And each coffin that lies on it makes it more powerful, more valuable as a relic.”
Mourners may place their hands upon the coffin for a moment or longer. Some do this out of a religious impulse or tradition — Jews commonly leave pebbles or rocks atop headstones as a sign of their presence and remembrance, and Christians have a tradition of touching to bless, pray over or anoint.
But even the non-religious may find touching the coffin has a spiritual and emotional resonance.
“Touching allows us to connect with this inexplicable event that is going to touch all of us,” Plate said. “We reach out to connect to that unknown. It gives us a grasp on something we cannot control.”
State funeral and a national day of mourning
President Trump declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. Flags will be at half-staff; federal offices and the stock market will be closed. Millions of people, here and abroad, are expected to watch a live broadcast of Bush’s state funeral from Washington National Cathedral.
The cathedral was envisioned by George Washington in 1791, chartered by Congress in 1893 and is home to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope, the provost of the cathedral, said such a blend of the sacred and the secular makes the cathedral a fitting place for the service of the former leader of a country that is both religiously diverse and committed to secularism.
One of the hymns at the service will be his favorite, “For All the Saints,” Cope said.
“Whether we are religious or not, in moments like these we lift our eyes to a belief in something larger than ourselves,” said Cope, who will lead prayers in Wednesday’s service, “What I hope is that it inspires us to our better selves, to what President Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
The focus of the funeral on Bush’s “better nature” — his life of service to the country, his feats of heroism in World War II and the charitable works of his post-presidential career — can be unifying for all Americans, she said.
“Even those of different faiths or no faith believe in the inherent goodness of people,” she said. “Hopefully, through honoring people like President Bush, we get a glimpse of a world where we are all in it together.”