State funerals are public funerals held in honor of those who have served our country. They only occur when the family of the deceased has agreed to the honor and are comfortable including the public in commemorating the accomplishments of their loved one. In the U.S., state funerals are also held for president elects, sitting presidents, former presidents, and anyone with national significance. Tradition and protocol are important in these ceremonies, but the details and sequence of events are often left to the family to decide.
There are so many details that go into one of these celebrations of life: Armed Forces pallbearers, various 21-gun salutes, musical pieces from military bands and choirs, and a military chaplain for the immediate family. Most of these details are planned years in advance. For presidents, these decisions are made once they leave office.
The Military District of Washington has the primary responsibility of conducting all state funerals and follows the procedure laid out in a 138-page planning document. A flag-draped casket is customary and is pulled in the ceremonial funeral procession by six horses of the same color. The procession is composed of National Guard, active-duty, academy, and reserve personnel that represent the five branches of the United States Armed Forces, and the casket is followed by a rider-less horse.
The procession begins in sight of the White House and travels to the U.S. Capitol, usually ending at the east front of the Capitol. Interestingly, the only exception to this was the funeral of Ronald Reagan who, as former governor of California, requested that he be carried up the steps which face west, overlooking California.
Upon the casket’s arrival at the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, a short service (the official “state funeral”) is held with members of Congress present. Afterwards, the casketed remains stay in the Capitol and lie in state for public viewing. Lying in state is an honor that is only granted to presidents, military commanders, and members of Congress. The honor guard, whose members represent each of the armed services, maintain a vigil over the remains throughout the period of time they lie in state. Public viewing is allowed continuously until one hour before the departure ceremony.
The last major event is a national memorial service held in Washington, D.C with various foreign dignitaries and government officials in attendance. Immediately after the service is completed, the casketed remains travel to their final resting place for burial.
When it comes to state funerals, no detail is too small. But the most important thing is that the public stops to recognize the incredible sacrifices this person has made on behalf of our country.