Presidential Funeral Traditions: A Show of Respect

Published September 29, 2020
Funeral of former President George HW Bush

Presidential funeral traditions developed as a way for the nation to process the loss of a sitting or former president, while having the opportunity to pay their respects. Presidential funeral practices may differ depending on the President's and their family's wishes.

Presidential Funeral Traditions

Presidential funeral traditions allow individuals throughout the country, and the world, to come together, acknowledge, and grieve the loss of the sitting or a former president.

History of State Funerals

State funerals began to take shape after William Henry Harrison passed away while in office. While his service was kept private, the White House was draped in black and the United States Marine Band played dirges during the procession. More funeral rites were added after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one of which included lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda.

Funeral former President HW Bush with military guard

Timeline of Funeral Protocol

While presidential funerals may differ, a general list of protocols includes:

  • Individuals within the United States government, other countries, as well as the American public are notified of the passing of the commander-in-chief, or former president, through various outlets. The sitting president typically issues a proclamation.
  • Flags are dropped to half staff for 30 days after the passing.
  • The sitting president declares it a day of mourning.
  • The Commanding General is in charge of funeral arrangements.
  • The body is transferred to the president's home state for a closed casket public viewing, and then to Washington D. C. for another closed casket viewing open to the public.
  • Funeral procession, which goes from Constitution avenue towards the White House, often there are many road closures within the area
  • A horse-drawn caisson or motorcade may transport the flag-draped casket to the White House once it is in view (may have police and military escorts)
  • The deceased president's loved ones may greet the public at the door before they pay their respects to the president
  • Lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda in a closed casket where the public may pay their respects
  • Funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral, which may include several eulogies, honorary pallbearers, a 21-gun salute, military flyover, and a riderless horse holding boots pointing backwards
  • Casket sent to final resting place (former presidents may be buried in Arlington National Cemetary)
  • Private funeral for loved ones

Military Salutes

Military salutes that may occur at a presidential funeral:

  • 21-gun salute
  • Salute to the Union (50 guns fired)
  • Military flyover

Do All Presidents Get State Funerals?

The current president, the president elect, or any ex-president is entitled to a state funeral. However, based on their wishes, and/or the wishes of their loved ones, they may opt to have something private instead.

George HW Bush state funeral arrival of Air Force One

Who Pays for a State Funeral?

Taxes cover the cost of a state funeral. Funerals will vary in pricing, and for a president, the cost is often very high.

Who Approves a State Funeral?

The federal government states that funeral rites are to be given to any president elect, current president, or ex-president. State funerals are planned and executed by the Commanding General.

Did Nixon Get a Presidential Funeral?

Nixon's funeral was a unique state funeral. It included:

  • Casket transportation to the Nixon Library
  • Lie in repose in the Nixon Library for one day
  • Funeral service on the Nixon Library's grounds
  • Buried next to his wife Patricia on the Nixon Library grounds

Which Presidents Have Laid in State?

Presidents who have lain in state include:

  • George H. W. Bush
  • Gerald Ford
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Herbert Hoover
  • John F. Kennedy
  • William Howard Taft
  • Warren G. Harding
  • William McKinley, Jr.
  • James Garfield
  • Abraham Lincoln

Who Was the Last Person to Have a State Funeral?

The last president to have a state funeral was George H. W. Bush. His death was proclaimed on December 1, 2018.

Which Presidents Had Funeral Trains?

Funeral trains were originally used to transport the casket of the deceased president to their final resting location. Funeral trains were used later on as a tribute to the president, and for a way for those across the country to pay their respects. The presidents who had funeral trains:

  • George H. W. Bush
  • James Garfield
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • William McKinley
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower

A Presidential Funeral

Presidential funeral practices were put in place to honor a sitting or former president. Presidential funeral rituals allow the nation, as well as other countries, to collectively mourn the loss, while supporting one another.

Presidential Funeral Traditions: A Show of Respect