When a President Passes
As the nation prays for Jimmy Carter and continues to appreciate his legacy, it’s meaningful to note that no Democratic president has died since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1973. As of this writing, all the Democratic presidents since then—Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden—are still alive. Should Carter pass, his funeral would be the first for a Democratic president in half a century.
Carter’s death would also be noteworthy in another way. Lyndon Johnson was also the last Democratic president in office during a state funeral for a deceased president, that of John F. Kennedy following his assassination in 1963, which in turn elevated Johnson to the presidency. When Richard Nixon died in 1994 during the Clinton presidency, it was at his own request that there was no traditional state funeral, opting instead for a more modest ceremony at his own presidential library. This choice may have reflected Nixon’s discomfort with the circumstances of his departure from the presidency, as he remains the only president to resign from office.
Nixon’s choice highlights a strange dichotomy of presidential funerals. On one hand, tradition and protocol heavily govern the funerals, while on the other hand, the president’s personal preferences are carefully considered. This planning actually begins during a president’s tenure as the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which is in charge of presidential funerals, meets with a president early in a presidential term to discuss their desired arrangements. Admittedly, this is a somewhat morbid topic to take on while running the free world, and not necessarily considering the circumstances surrounding one’s demise. The president’s wishes remain a carefully guarded secret, made public only following their death. These instructions can be quite detailed: George H.W. Bush’s were laid out in a 211-page document revealed after his death in 2018.
Even though this process allows presidents to express their preferences, there remains a degree of protocol for funerals. The sitting president is expected to announce the presidential passing and issue an executive order closing the federal government on the day designated as the National Day of Mourning for the former president. Other common traditions include keeping flags at half-staff for 30 days and an expected five-day state funeral. Most presidents select their home states for burial and Carter is likely to follow suit in selecting his native Georgia as his final resting place. However, two presidents—John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft— were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
When a former president dies, many expect the deceased president’s body to lie in state—a tradition in which the body of a deceased official is placed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to allow the public to pay their respects—but there have been variations with the passing of former presidents. Gerald Ford, for example, requested that his body lie in the chambers of both the U.S. House and Senate, to reflect his long service in the House as well as his time as president of the Senate, a position he held as the vice president. As Red State’s Joe Cunningham has noted, another variation which is common involves the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. Following his death in 2004, Pres. Reagan’s coffin was taken by horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol. Pres. Ford, in contrast, requested no horse, and that his procession go through Alexandria, Virginia, where he lived for many years, and past the Word War II Memorial, in honor of his service in the U.S. Navy.
One particularly poignant moment in all presidential funerals remains the gathering of the living presidents—some friends, others bitter political rivals—at the service which usually takes place at the Washington National Cathedral. Historically, pictures of the presidents sitting together garner a lot of attention. With ongoing tensions surrounding former Pres. Donald Trump, it will be interesting to see how the interaction happens, if at all: the possibility of Carter’s specific funeral requests, which are refined beyond that initial meeting while he was in office, could potentially request that certain individuals not be invited.
Presidential funerals typically bring both unity and mourning. These special traditions and protocols help ensure that presidential funerals both reflect the individual preferences of the deceased, as well as provide the proper level of respect for those who served in the highest office in the land.
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