From the inception of this country, presidential funerals have been
lavish affairs. They are akin to royal funerals in countries where monarchies rule. There have been exceptions, such as with the funeral of John Hansen, the United States of America’s first president (a bit of obscure trivia but that is a story for another day).
George Washington in 1799, shortly before his death, requested a quiet burial without celebratory parade or lengthy funeral oration. A simple three day viewing, and then burial. Washington, however, was a larger than life icon for the generation of Americans that had fought for independence, and lived through the struggle of the nations formative years. As a result thousands of citizens, some in the uniform of the revolution, traveled to Mount Vernon in Virginia for a viewing or the funeral. Despite his wishes, hundreds trooped to Mount Vernon for the funeral. Mourning swept the nation, the military donned black armbands, and homes, businesses, and government buildings were draped in black. Tributes and imitation honorary funerals went on for months.
Before the death of William Henry Harrison in 1841, presidential funerals were arranged by the family just as they were for any citizen. With the death of Harrison the funeral of a president became more formal and structured. The White House was draped in black bunting, and the invitation only funeral took place in the East Room after a public viewing period. The official United States Marine Band played dirges during his coffins procession to the Congressional Cemetery. There it is was placed in a temporary chamber until a final resting place had been prepared in his home state of Ohio. Modeled after funerals for European royalty, the mourning period with honorariums and commemorations lasted for 30 days.
Even with a set structure of formality the funerals and memorials have been as diverse as the men who have held the office. Calvin Coolidge’s funeral oration lasted a mere five minutes. Grover Cleveland’s funeral was a simple affair with only 100 invitations issued. Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, procession, and viewing was counted among the largest. During the two week viewing and procession form Washington D.C. to his home in Springfield, Illinois, more than two dozen funerals were held. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for viewings or to watch the passing of the funeral train that carried the body of the president, and his son Wiilie who had died three years previous. Lincoln also has the dubious honor of being the first American president to be embalmed. Still, the undertaker assigned to travel with the president had to perform numerous touch ups before open casket services. Ulysses Grant’s viewing was also well attended with more than 60,000 people following the funeral procession. In 1963, more than 250,000 people filed past the casket of President John F. Kennedy while he was lying in state at the capitol.
As an historic footnote, perhaps one of the strangest presidential funerals was that held for Andrew Jackson. Jackson had been a man of the frontier and many of those in attendance reflected his frontier heritage. There was a great deal of drinking, and Jackson’s parrot, renowned for its salty vocabulary, was banished form the funeral after uttering a string of obscenities.
Arizona Affordable Funeral Home and Crematory may not be large enough to handle a royal funeral such as is held for presidents but their knowledgeable and professional staff is ready to assist during your time of grief.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America