Friday, June 11, 2004

The first state funeral in 31 years reminded District residents of Washington’s unique and important role in the national consciousness — especially during times of grief.

A state funeral is an enormously detailed ceremony of pomp and remembrance. It is intended to pay the highest tribute to the country’s greatest leaders and citizens, and in the process it unifies and focuses the country, said Betty Koed, assistant Senate historian.

“It emphasizes the fact that the nation turns to [Washington] in times of triumph and joy, but they also turn here in times of sorrow and tragedy,” Ms. Koed said. “For the nation, it’s a unifying event that brings people together to mourn and express their identity as Americans.”

Former President Ronald Reagan’s body was buried yesterday at his library in Simi Valley, Calif., after a week of mourning and remembrance, including a three-day state funeral in the nation’s capital.

Only presidents, ex-presidents, presidents-elect or a person specifically designated by the president are eligible for a state funeral.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the last president before Mr. Reagan to be given a full state funeral. When Richard M. Nixon died in 1994, his family declined a full state funeral.

The U.S. state funeral has served as an outlet for national grief since the tradition was started in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s murder sent shock waves through a country reeling from a five-year Civil War.

The nation was newly interconnected by the telegraph and, “The news of his death spread much more quickly than any other president’s death,” Ms. Koed said. “That news went out very quickly, because of the telegraph, railroads and quicker dispersion of news through papers.

“The earlier presidents tended to have ceremonies at their homes. The traumatic nature of Lincoln’s death raised it to another level, and that created the tradition of the state funeral,” she said.

Television created an immediate and intense period of national grief and mourning after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. The memory of Mr. Kennedy’s state funeral, particularly his casket being carried down Pennsylvania Avenue on a caisson in the freezing cold of November and his 3-year-old son’s salute outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, is imprinted on the nation’s memory.

Mr. Reagan’s casket arrived in Washington on Wednesday and was taken by caisson down Constitution Avenue. Many in the crowd who came to the Capitol Rotunda to see the casket said they were drawn by a sense of history as much as sadness for the passing of the 93-year-old former president.

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