Hearse, not horses, took former president to lie in state in Capitol
Few Americans lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, an honor steeped in protocol and automatically accorded only presidents, members of Congress, and select military personnel. Others have received the honor by an act of Congress. Former President George H.W. Bush will lie in state in the Capitol Monday evening, December 3, through Wednesday morning, December 5.
The nation has extended the tradition, begun with President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, to 31 individuals, including 11 presidents and four Unknown Soldiers. Procedures and protocols developed for Lincoln’s funeral have guided many aspects of these rituals. One near-constant has been the catafalque, a platform whose design dates to medieval days, that holds the deceased’s casket for viewing by the public. The rough pine catafalque built for Lincoln and covered with black cloth has seen duty in every presidential funeral since. Two days after an assassin killed President John F. Kennedy, more than 250,000 people filed through the Rotunda. The most recent recipient of the honor, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) lay in the Rotunda Friday, August 31. Four Americans have “lain in honor” at the Rotunda: U.S. Capitol Police officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson, gunned down in 1998, civil rights heroine Rosa Parks in 2005, and, earlier this year, the Reverend Billy Graham.
Air Force One, temporarily re-designated Special Air Mission 41, arrived at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at about 3:25 p.m. Wednesday after flying to Houston Monday morning to transport President Bush’s casket to Washington. A military honor guard placed President Bush’s flag-draped casket in a hearse to begin its journey to the U.S. Capitol.
Historically, when presidents have lain in state at the Capitol, the deceased has been transported ceremonially past the White House and on to the Capitol by way of Constitution Avenue NW in a horse-drawn caisson. In a break from tradition, the hearse and the line of limousines drove directly to the Capitol, where ceremonial units from all branches of the armed service mustered in precise lines in expectation of the arrival of the funeral party. Inside the Capitol, members of Congress and other dignitaries gathered for a welcoming ceremony in the Rotunda.
In accordance with President Bush’s wishes, spelled out in detail long before his death, no funeral cortege marched ahead of the flag-draped casket on a World War I vintage gun carriage designed to carry a 75mm cannon. Nor was there a riderless horse, with a pair of boots inserted backwards in the stirrups, such as was used in previous presidential funerals, so memorably during the procession for slain President Kennedy in 1963. Instead, onlookers including 43rd President George W. Bush, his wife, Laura, and other members of the Bush family watched as the sun set over the plaza and the order “Present Arms” echoed from unit to unit. A military band placed “Hail to the Chief” as a 21-gun salute was rendered. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was played as the pallbearers representing all branches of the armed forces carried the casket up the Capitol steps followed by the family. The casket was placed under the Capitol dome to be guarded through its stay by military personnel facing
inward at the position of order arms—standing at attention with their rifles in their right hands, rifle butts resting on the floor. After the service Monday evening, thousands of mourners are expected to file by the casket between 7:30 p.m. Monday and 7 a.m. Wednesday. President Donald Trump has ordered the lowering of flags at government buildings and military installations to half-staff for 30 days. Many federal agencies will close Wednesday, a national day of mourning.
The official funeral, at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral, is expected to draw former presidents and dozens of world leaders. President Bush’s remains will return to Texas for a service Thursday in Houston, after which a special train will take the casket to College Station for private burial at the George H.W. Bush Library. A family gravesite already holds the remains of former first lady Barbara Bush and the couple’s daughter, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush, who died of leukemia in 1953. —Nancy Tappan is senior editor of American History