Frazer Blog

A Funeral Fit for a President: History Behind Presidential Funerals

by | Feb 19, 2018 | For Families

Presidents' faces on Mount Rushmore

Now that it’s Presidents Day, let’s look at the history, traditions, and ways we honor and mourn an American president.

The First Presidential Funeral

Before he passed away, George Washington insisted on a quiet and simple burial. His last will and testament said his funeral should be “without parade or funeral oration.” He didn’t get his wish.

Washington’s funeral included a procession of soldiers, thousands gathered at Mount Vernon, and the whole nation mourned. It’s said that more than 400 memorial services were held around the country.

Many people, including military and Congress, wore black armbands for weeks after the first president’s death. In fact, just nine days after Washington’s death, Congress met and began to lay out the foundation for what would be the United States’ official state funeral.

It wasn’t until 1841 with the death of President William Henry Harrison, that the United States held its first official presidential funeral.

Customs and Traditions

Presidential funerals — even today — are filled with specific rituals. In fact, the Military District of Washington has a 138-page plan for presidential and state funerals.

Here are a few of the iconic traditions that make up a presidential funeral:

  • Presidents that die serving in office lie in state in the East Room of the White House.
  • Presidents that die out of office typically lie in state in their home state before being taken to Washington, D.C.
  • An early tradition for presidential funerals included draping the White House in black. However, modern presidential funerals no longer practice this.
  • The sitting president orders an immediate presidential proclamation to lower all flags to half-staff.
  • On the day of the burial, the deceased president receives a 21-gun salute. In addition to that, on the day of a president’s death, military installations fire a gun every half-hour.
  • A 50-gun salute from the Presidential Salute Battery is also fired during the funeral of a president. The 50 rounds fired represent each state in the union.

Presidential Funeral Procession

For the funeral procession of a president, traditions include:

  • Processions starting on either Pennsylvania or Constitution Avenue and ending at the United States Capitol. Sitting presidents start at Pennsylvania, while former start at Constitution Avenue.
  • The flag-draped casket is carried on a caisson — a four-wheeled cart originally designed to carry artillery.
  • Six horses, all the same color, carry the caisson.
  • The procession includes the National Guard, local police, and members from all five branches of the armed forces.
  • A riderless horse, a tradition that dates back to Washington’s funeral, accompanies the procession. A blanket emblazoned with the presidential seal drapes over the horse.
  • About halfway through the funeral procession, 21 fighter jets fly in formation over the procession.

Presidential Preplanning

Just because presidential funerals have so many rituals and traditions, it doesn’t mean they are all the same. In fact, before taking office a president must have his funeral wishes already outlined. According to Claire Faulkner, writing for the White House Historical Association, “By helping plan their own funeral, presidents are able to incorporate personal touches that can elucidate their character and legacy on a national stage for the last time. In many ways, funeral services are a final conversation with the nation, and illustrate something about the man and the way in which he wishes to be remembered.”

Other Interesting Facts

Below are some interesting facts about the different ceremonies chosen by presidents:

  • In total, only eight presidents have chosen to have a full funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. Four of those eight were for assassinated presidents.
  • Some presidents, such as Truman and Nixon, opted to not have a state funeral at all. Instead, they both had smaller more private services near their homes.
  • Abraham Lincoln received more than a dozen funerals. He also was the first embalmed president.
  • FDR did not receive a state funeral because of the active military serving overseas in WWII.
  • Andrew Johnson’s body was wrapped in the American flag, and his head rested on a copy of the Constitution.
  • President Eisenhower chose his military uniform as his funeral outfit and a standard $80 military coffin for his funeral.
  • Two presidents are buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Kennedy and Taft), only one is buried in D.C. (Woodrow Wilson), the rest are buried in their home state.
  • President Coolidge’s funeral only lasted five minutes.
  • During the funeral for President Andrew Jackson, his pet parrot started cursing obscenities during the service. The pastor presiding the funeral service said: “before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.”

What are some other presidential funeral traditions you know of? Share with us in the comments below!


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