From George Washington to George H.W. Bush: The history of presidential funerals


Former President George H.W. Bush died in his Houston home Friday, becoming the 39th American head of state to die since the country’s founding.

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” eulogized Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, after George Washington died at his home, Mount Vernon, on Dec. 14, 1799. Lee was commissioned by Congress to pen the eulogy for the man who has been remembered as the “father of our country.”

Since Washington’s death, the loss of one of its former leaders has united America in a way few other events can. Americans tend to put political animosity aside and to momentarily forgive a president’s faults, to honor the fallen leader and to celebrate the shared history reflected in his time in office.

According to the National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, a 69-day period of public mourning followed Washington’s death. Congress resolved to wear black for the remainder of the session, published a presidential proclamation that called for people to wear black armbands for 30 days and planned a funeral in Philadelphia to remember Washington with a “solemn and august pageantry.”

Each president’s death since Washington has been commemorated with similar solemnity and pageantry, though the specifics and form of the memorial have evolved and varied according to the wishes of the president and his family. Still, a general framework for presidential funerals has formed over time.

Every president is asked to begin planning his own funeral service shortly after taking office, according to the White House Historical Association. The coordination for the event is handled by the Army Military District of Washington. They traditionally last for five days and include a procession to the Capitol where the fallen president lies in state before a funeral service.

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