- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004


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

Mr. Reagan died Saturday at his home in California. His body will lie in repose at his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles.

His remains will be flown to Washington to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. A funeral service, expected to be attended by a score of world leaders, will be at Washington National Cathedral.

The State Department’s protocol office draws up seating arrangements for foreign guests at religious ceremonies. The rules and how they are implemented are patterned on what has gone before.

President Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 was modeled after President 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.

On the matter of seating arrangements for the funeral, the presidential party is followed by heads of state, arranged alphabetically by the English spelling of their countries. Royalty representing heads of state, such as princes and dukes, come next, followed by heads of government, such as prime ministers and premiers.

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.”

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.

Alexander Hunter, a Washington merchant, 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 25 years later.

For Harrison, Hunter ordered a curtained and upholstered black-and-white carriage, which was drawn by black-clad horses, each accompanied by a black groom dressed and turbaned entirely in white. Along the side marched pallbearers, dressed in black.

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.

Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in 1973, was the last ex-president to have had an official Washington ceremony. Former President 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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