Lying in State: The History Behind the Solemn Tradition - HISTORY

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Since 1852, 35 individuals have received the high honor of lying in state: 12 presidents, two vice presidents, plus members of Congress, unknown soldiers, military heroes, a city planner, and U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Bestowed as a final tribute to distinguished government officials and military officers, a lying in state ceremony requires the approval of a concurrent resolution by Congress in order to take place in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A service, accompanied by full military honors, is followed by an invitation for the public to pay its respects.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: First Woman to Lie in State

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18, 2020, became the first woman and the first Jewish American to be recognized with the tribute (and the second Supreme Court justice—honoree President William Howard Taft served as chief justice after his presidency). Ginsburg was placed in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. (Statuary Hall is controlled by the House, so Senate approval was not needed.)

“The Rotunda is part of the Capitol that belongs to everybody, it’s not a House room or a Senate room,” says Jane Campbell, president and CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “The place where you lie in state is actually right in the center of Washington, and so you’re technically in all four quadrants at the same time.”

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Henry Clay, Then Abraham Lincoln: First to Lie in State

Kentucky Senator and Speaker of the House Henry Clay was the first to be honored with the recognition in 1852, followed by President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865. The original platform on which Lincoln’s casket rested, called a catafalque and constructed of simple pine boards draped in black cloth, has been preserved and used in most of the nation's lying-in-state services ever since.

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. Also, the black fabric draping that covers the catafalque has been replaced several times. It’s also been lent out to the U.S. Supreme Court and other branches of government for services in other areas of the Capitol, she adds, including for several justices, including Thurgood Marshall, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, among others, as well as Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown in 1996, after he died in a plane crash while on duty.

'Lying in Honor' Bestowed to Private Citizens

Special Agent John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut Lying in State

US Capitol police officers salute the caskets of Special Agent John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut as they lie in honor in the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 1998. Gibson and Chestnut were killed when a man opened fire inside the building after running through metal detectors at the door. 

In addition to “lying in state,” Congress also recognizes “lying in honor” for private citizens. Four people—Capitol police officers 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 the Rev. Billy Graham in 2018—have received the recognition. “Chestnut and Gibson were the first people to ever lie in honor in the Rotunda,” Campbell says.

According to Campbell, following John F. Kennedy’s death, Congress proclaimed that all presidents would lie in state upon their deaths if it was so desired by their families. Since then, two families have declined the ceremony.

“One was Nixon because they were afraid it was going to turn into a controversy,” she says. “The other was Truman, because his wife never liked Washington, she never wanted to be in Washington, and she didn’t especially like being first lady. So he made a decision that he wasn’t going to make Bess have to go through a state funeral.”

Honorees, Elijah Cummings, John Lewis and City Planner, L'Enfant

Other notable tributes include those of Rep. Elijah Cummings, who, in 2019, was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state, in Statuary Hall. Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17, 2020, was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda. J. Edgar Hoover is the sole FBI director to lie in state. 

And, Campbell notes, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, an architect famed for planning the city of Washington, D.C., received his lying in state honors more than 80 years after his death.

“He died in 1825, he laid in state in 1909,” she says. “They dug him up from Digges farm in Prince George's County, Maryland in order to be re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery. They thought, well, he helped plan the city so why don't we put him in the Capitol?” 

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