State Funeral Ceremonial Tradition

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A state funeral is a national tribute which is traditionally reserved for a head of state. The United States conducts state funerals on behalf of all persons who hold, or have held, the office of president as well as a president-elect and other persons designated by the president. Foreign countries also mourn the loss of a former head of state and their participation generates its own protocol.

 Military regulations provide guidance for how the United States conducts a state funeral and all involved ceremonies. While military regulation, tradition and protocol influence state funerals, personalized plans are developed to reflect family desires. Typically, family desires determine the number, location and sequence of public ceremonies and observances consistent with military regulations.

For example, in keeping with the wishes of the family, President Nixon's funeral took place over a two-day period from April 26-27, 1994, and included ceremonies in New York and California, but no ceremonies in Washington. President Reagan’s funeral took place over a seven-day period from June 5-11, 2004, and included services and ceremonies in Washington and California. President Ford’s funeral took place over a nine-day period from Dec. 26, 2006, to Jan. 3, 2007, and included services and ceremonies in California, Washington and Michigan.

The following list identifies the customary elements of a state funeral.

NOTE: This does not reflect the schedule for every state funeral. Each presidential family tailors the funeral to their wishes.

 

  • Formal notification of demise to all branches of government, foreign countries and the public.
  • Repose in home state
  • Movement to Washington, D.C.
  • Repose at the National Cathedral in its Bethlehem Chapel
  • Casket transfer from hearse to horse-drawn caisson at the intersection of 16th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
  • Main funeral procession along Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
  • Lying in state at the U.S. Capitol
  • National funeral service in Washington, D.C.
  • Movement to final resting place
  • Private funeral service and interment

Explanation of Special Terms

  •   Repose  - The remains lie in one or more selected places for public viewing (e.g. church, presidential library or museum). This also includes appropriate arrival and departure ceremonies.
  •   Lying in state  - The remains lie in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol allowing the public to pay their respects. Appropriate arrival and departure ceremonies are included.

    NOTE: Lying in state occurs in the U.S. Capitol ONLY.

  • Casket Transfer - At 16th Street and Constitution Avenue, the remains are transferred by Armed Forces body bearers from a hearse to a horse-drawn caisson for movement to the U.S. Capitol to begin or end the main funeral procession.
  • Main Funeral Procession - Moves along Constitution Avenue.
  • Composition of Main Funeral Procession (in order of march):
    • Police escort
    • Military units, including federal service academies, Active Duty, National Guard, Reserve, and military bands
    • Cortege – the segment of the main funeral procession in a state funeral that includes, in order of march:
      • Special honor guard
      • Honorary pallbearers
      • National color
      • Clergy
      • Caisson
      • Armed Forces body bearers
      • Presidential color
      • Caparisoned horse
      • Family
    • Information gathered from Army Pamphlet 1-1 and historical documents.

      For more information on state funerals, visit www.jfhqncr.northcom.mil.

A high angle photo of President Gerald Ford's flag drapped casket lying in state.