Lying in State: The History Behind the Solemn Tradition
Since 1852, 35 people have been given the great honor of lying in the state: 12 presidents, two vice-presidents, plus members of Congress, unknown soldiers, military heroes, a town planner and judges of the Supreme Court of the States. -United.
Awarded as a final tribute to prominent government officials and military officers, a lying ceremony in the state requires the approval of a concomitant resolution by Congress in order to be held in the Grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A service, accompanied by all military honors, is followed by an invitation to the public to pay him homage.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: first woman to lie in state
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, 2020, will become the first woman to receive the tribute (and the second Supreme Court justice – Honored President William Howard Taft served as Chief Justice after her presidency). Ginsburg will be placed in the Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol. (Statuary Hall is controlled by the House, so Senate approval was not required.)
“The Rotunda is part of the Capitol that belongs to everyone, it is not a chamber of the House or a chamber of the Senate,” says Jane Campbell, President and CEO of the US Capitol Historical Society. “Where you are in the state is actually right in the middle of downtown Washington, so you’re technically in all four quadrants at the same time.”
WATCH: Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Henry Clay, then Abraham Lincoln: the first to fully lie
Kentucky Senator and Speaker of the House Henry Clay was the first to be honored with recognition in 1852, followed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The original platform on which Lincoln’s coffin rested, called a catafalque and built from simple pine planks draped in black fabric, has been preserved and used in most state departments nationwide since then.
The catafalque, which can be seen at the Capitol Visitor Center when not in use, has been reinforced over the years, according to Campbell. President Ronald Reagan, for example, had a heavy, marble-lined coffin that needed extra support. In addition, the black fabric drape that covers the catafalque has been replaced several times. He has also been on loan to the United States Supreme Court and other branches of government for services in other areas of the Capitol, she adds, including for several judges, including Thurgood Marshall, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, among others, as well as Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown in 1996, after his death in a plane crash while on duty.
“ Lying in honor ” granted to individuals
In addition to “lying in the state,” Congress also recognizes “lying in honor” for individuals. Four people – Capitol Cop Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson who were killed in the line of duty in 1998, civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 and Reverend Billy Graham in 2018 – received the recognition. “Chestnut and Gibson were the first people to lie in honor in the Rotunda,” says Campbell.
According to Campbell, after the death of John F. Kennedy, Congress proclaimed that all presidents would lie when they died if their families wished. Since then, two families have declined the ceremony.
“One was Nixon because they feared it would turn into controversy,” she says. “The other was Truman, because his wife never liked Washington, she never wanted to be in Washington, and she didn’t particularly like being the first lady. So he decided he wasn’t going to force Bess to have a state funeral.
Honorés, Elijah Cummings, John Lewis and urban planner, L’Enfant
Other notable tributes include those from Representative Elijah Cummings, who in 2019 was the first black lawmaker to lie in the state, at Statuary Hall. Representative John Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020, was the first black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda. J. Edgar Hoover is the only director of the FBI to lie in state.
And, Campbell notes, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, an architect famous for planning the city of Washington, DC, received his state honors more than 80 years after his death.
“He died in 1825, he was rehabilitated in 1909,” she says. “They dug him up from Digges Farm in Prince George County, Maryland, to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. They thought, well, he helped plan the city, so why not put him on the Capitol?