State funeral is bound by rules and tradition

WASHINGTON - Former President Ronald Reagan will be memorialized at the first presidential state funeral in more than three decades, a ritual rich in traditions from the country's earliest days.

Presidents, former presidents and presidents-elect are entitled to state funerals. It is left to the family to decide whether one should be held and how involved it should be.

No detail in the planning is too small.

The military, for instance, has a 138-page planning document that dictates everything from seating charts to floral arrangements. Processions must move at 20 mph. The footsteps of military guards are elaborately prescribed.

The State Department's protocol office draws up seating arrangements for foreign guests at religious ceremonies.

Since the Reagan family requested the full funeral protocol, President Bush put into motion a detailed chain of command, with most arrangements delegated to Washington-area Army officials. Military planners flew to California to consult with the family.

The former president died Saturday at his home in California. This morning, his body will be taken from a Santa Monica funeral home to his presidential library in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles. After a private service for his family, his body will lie in the library's lobby, which will be open to the public for 30 consecutive hours.

On Wednesday, his body will be flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

A service at the Washington National Cathedral, including a tribute by Bush, will be held Friday before the body is returned to the Reagan library in California for a sunset interment.

Looking to history

The rules for a state funeral and how they are implemented are patterned on what has gone before.

President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963 was modeled after Abraham Lincoln's, as requested by Jacqueline Kennedy in her first public statement after her husband's assassination.

Historians pored over musty documents in the middle of the night by flashlight - the Library of Congress' automatic lights could not be rigged to come on after hours - as the stunned country waited for a plan.

Reagan's family also may be looking to history:

  • Nine presidents have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda; all but two had served in Congress. Reagan did not.

  • Seven presidents have had funeral processions down Pennsylvania Avenue, including all four presidents who were assassinated: Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy.

  • Kennedy and William Howard Taft are the only two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

  • Only sitting presidents or their immediate families have lain in state in the White House.

    John Adams did not lie in state in the White House, even though he died while his son, John Quincy Adams, was president. The elder Adams, the country's second president, and Thomas Jefferson, the third, died on the same day - July 4, 1826 - which perhaps complicated Adams' chances for a White House viewing.

    The Capitol has a more expansive policy.

    U.S. statesman Henry Clay, in 1852, was the first to lie in honor in the Rotunda. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover lay in honor in the Capitol in 1972. Two police officers shot down in 1998 while protecting the Capitol also lay in honor there.

    Etiquette, protocol

    On the matter of seating arrangements for the funeral, the presidential party is followed by chiefs of state, arranged alphabetically by the English spelling of their countries. Royalty representing chiefs of state come next and then heads of governments followed by other officials.

    During the ceremony at the cathedral, generals sit in the north nave, family members in the south nave.

    "The only real purpose of that sort of etiquette and protocol is to make the most people comfortable," said William Seale, a White House historian and author. "It's a trying time, a difficult time. You have to take care of the crowds, the emotions."

    When death occurs outside Washington, the remains can be sent back to the capital, where they are attended by a military honor guard.

    The first presidential state funeral was for William Henry Harrison. He caught a cold during his inaugural address in 1841 and died of pneumonia 30 days later, becoming the first president to die in office.

    Washington merchant Alexander Hunter was commissioned to put on a first-of-its-kind American ceremony.

    Hunter draped the White House in black. Official buildings and many private households followed suit, starting a now-lost tradition that was repeated at Lincoln's funeral 24 years later.

    Before Harrison, the funerals of former presidents saw little pomp in the capital. Numerous ceremonies were held across the country for George Washington after his death Dec. 14, 1799, but his funeral was a local affair at Mount Vernon, Va.

    Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1973, was the last former president to have had an official Washington ceremony. Former President Richard M. Nixon's family, acting on his wishes, opted out of the Washington traditions when he died in 1994.

    In addition to presidents, anyone chosen by a president can be accorded a state funeral.

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