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State Funeral Steeped In Tradition

While tradition and protocol greatly influence a funeral for a former head of state, the exact sequence of events is determined by family desires. Despite the immediate family's personal loss, much of the funeral remains open to the public, which shares in the loss of a national leader. Foreign countries also mourn the loss of a former head of state and their participation generates its own protocol, says the United States Army Military District of Washington.

In keeping with the wishes of the family, President Nixon's funeral took place over a two-day period from April 26-27, 1994. However, most state funerals, including those for Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson have included the following events:

  • Formal notification of demise to all branches of government, foreign countries and general public.
  • Repose in home state (public opportunity for viewing and mourning).
  • Movement to Washington, D.C.
  • Lying in State at the U.S. Capitol (public opportunity for viewing and mourning).
  • Main funeral procession along Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
  • Casket transfer from horse-drawn caisson to hearse at the intersection of 16th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.
  • Funeral service in Washington, D.C. (public opportunity for viewing and mourning).
  • Movement to location where the former president will be laid to rest.
  • Private funeral service and interment.

    By law, former presidents are afforded a state funeral upon demise.

    Once the president officially announces the demise of a former commander-in-chief, he then joins the nation in offering condolences.

    The Secretary of Defense is then directed to conduct the funeral on behalf of the nation. In turn, he designates the Secretary of the Army, who oversees the nation's senior military service, to be his representative.

    The Secretary of the Army further designates the commanding general for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington (MDW), to exercise that responsibility. The MDW commander is responsible for making all ceremonial arrangements for the funeral in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the continental United States.

    Each branch of the armed forces provides personnel and support under the supervision of the Military District of Washington. Support includes an Armed Forces Honor Guard. In the past, this special ceremonial unit has participated in the state funerals for former presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, Johnson and Nixon. A state funeral was also conducted for the Vietnam Unknown in 1984.

    Explanation of Special Terms

    Repose - The remains lie in one or more of the 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 overnight in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Appropriate arrival and departure ceremonies are included.

    Main Funeral Procession - Begins at the Capitol and moves west along Constitution Avenue.

    Casket Transfer - At 16th Street and Constitution Avenue, the remains are transferred from a caisson to a hearse for movement to Washington National Cathedral.

    Composition of Main Funeral Procession (in order of march):

  • Police escort
  • Troops, including service bands
  • Cortege:
    Special honor guard
    Honorary pallbearers
    National colors
    Armed Forces body bearers
    Presidential colors
    Caparisoned horse

    As a past commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, former presidents are afforded specific military honors. In accordance with regulation and tradition, these honors include:

    Military Escort For The Immediate Family - The commanding general for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington serves as the military escort for the former president's immediate family from the time of the official announcement of the death until burial. Maj. Gen. Galen B. Jackman is the MDW commanding general and will serve in this capacity.

    Guard Of Honor - An armed forces element that provides a ceremonial presence when the former president lies in repose or state. Guard of Honor members are based in Washington, D.C., and belong to ceremonial detachments for the Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

    Armed Forces Body Bearers - A nine-person detail that carries the casket during a state funeral.

    21-Gun Salute - A cannon salute of 21 rounds is a traditional military honor for a head of state. During a state funeral, the salute is fired with five-second intervals between rounds.

    Military Clergy - A military chaplain from one of the services is assigned to assist the former president's immediate family.

    Flag-Draped Casket - All military veterans are entitled to have the American flag draped over their casket. The president, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is also entitled to this honor.

    Caisson - The Old Guard Caisson Platoon of the Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment will transport the remains during the funeral procession in Washington, D.C. The caisson consists of six horses of the same color, three riders, and a section chief mounted on a separate horse. The caisson itself is a converted transport wagon for a 75mm cannon.

    Caparisoned Horse - A riderless horse that follows the caisson. A pair of boots are reversed in the stirrups of the empty saddle to symbolize that the warrior will never ride again.

    Military Band - A military band will play appropriate music in honor of the former president during each phase of the funeral. Some traditional selections include:

  • Ruffles And Flourishes - Ruffles are played on drums and flourishes on bugles. They are sounded together, once for each star of the general officer being honored or according to the title or office held. Four ruffles and flourishes are the highest honor and are played for presidents.
  • Hail To The Chief - Traditional musical honors played for the president of the United States.
  • Taps - A bugle call sounded over the grave of a service member that dates back to the Civil War.
  • Firing Three Volleys Over A Grave - This practice has its origin in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once the deceased troops were removed, three rifle volleys were fired as a signal that the battle could resume. A military rifle party traditionally fires the volleys. The fact that the firing party consists of seven service members firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute.

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