What is a Presidential Funeral Train? Meaning + History

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The saying “by plane, train, or automobile” doesn’t hold anymore, but once upon a time America was once stitched together by the transcontinental railroad. We don't rely on trains as much for cross-country travel. Nowadays, folks have a wide variety of options to get where they’re going. Most are faster, shorter, and cheaper than trains. 

However, rail lines still cross the country, with trains lugging massive shipments of lumber from point A to point B every day. Trains still transport cargo in America, but the steam, smoke and sounds emitting from train drive pistons harken back to an earlier time where trains transported everything. Including caskets — hence the creation and use of a “funeral train.”

Over one hundred years ago, transporting a dead body was challenging. Methods of transportation had stretched and sprawled across America, making it possible for people to journey across the country with less difficulty.

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Despite all these advancements, travel wasn't perfect—suspended in an awkward growth stage between exciting and effective. People no longer died in the same town they were born in, which made burial difficult for their loved ones.

Bodies decay rapidly over time, and back then, transport by wagon was not a great option. Hence, the creation of the funeral train. Read further to learn about the history of funeral trains, and their use today.

History of Funeral Trains

Funeral trains served a dual purpose, transporting both coffins and family members. Of course, with trains as a major source of transportation, more mourners were able to attend funerals. However, funeral trains were usually reserved for the higher class, given the prices and general short turnaround time to transport a body to a funeral.

In Europe, the first funeral train ran in 1854 London. The London Necropolis Railway provided a strict schedule, bringing folks from the station once a day to a nearby cemetery. But they were quite unusual for their time, eschewing class norms for practicality. They didn’t take dignitaries or powerful people to their final resting place. They carried anyone’s body, as long as someone paid for the ticket. 

At the time, trains were divided by class. The conditions and care for the body depended on your ticket class. There were first, second, or third-class tickets. Despite this separation, there were still two controversies over social standards.

One revolved around superstition. Managers of the London Necropolis Railway worried about losing revenue. Their concern was that no one would ride a train used to move dead bodies. To counter this superstition-based concern, they used separate locomotives as funeral trains.

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The second was that people were concerned about societal associations on funeral trains as well. People were wary about people of different ‘moral character’ transported together. Death may be the great equalizer, as some have said, but during the 1850s no one wanted a town drunk's body to ride with a local priest.

Nothing was done to keep bodies separated. You could assume that cost kept people separated to some extent. Others worried that funeral trains weren’t somber or dignified enough, saying they too inappropriate to be associated with funerals. 

The use of the London Necropolis line lasted about 90 years, and stopped in World War II. The station fell victim to German bombing and never recovered. By that time, though, funeral trains had caught on elsewhere. 

The practicality of funeral trains’ beginnings can't be denied, as many bodies needed to travel at one time. As events of national importance occurred, funeral trains preceded motorcades. They brought people together as an opportunity to mourn and pay their respects. 

The revered history of the funeral train happened almost by accident. Word spread, for instance, after Lincoln’s assassination. People knew which train was carrying his body home from Washington D.C. and wanted to pay their respects. Funeral trains as a novelty took off after that.

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Famous Funeral Trains

A handful of U.S. leaders have been transported via funeral trains, with Abraham Lincoln as the first. Lincoln may be best remembered as the 16th president of the U.S., and the leader of the fractured country after the Civil War. On April 12, 1865, two years after giving his famous speech at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.

Upon hearing the news, people from all over the country gathered to get a glimpse of his funeral train. Though he lived and died in Washington, D.C., his body was transported from D.C. to Illinois to be buried on May 4 in his home state.

The War Department scheduled a series of spots at different cities along the way, with approximately 150 spots visited over 1,700 miles. Mourning citizens who couldn’t come to the White House could pay their respects. According to the Indiana Historical Bureau, these stops “included elaborate funeral processions where the remains were taken from the train for public display in the state capitol ... smaller towns located between stops erected arches over the tracks, tolled bells, draped buildings in black, and fired salutes.” The homage to Lincoln’s funeral train was so widespread that it became its own historical moment.

Another famous politician transported via funeral train was Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 6, 1968, over four years after the assassination of his brother and former president, John F. Kennedy. The funeral for Robert was held in New York City, and on the same day, the body was transported via funeral train over 200 miles to Washington D.C.

As the funeral train made its way to Arlington National Cemetery, mourners lined up to pay respects to the beloved politician. More than 1 million Americans packed the sides of the railroad at different portions of the trip.

Most recently, President George H.W. Bush was also transported via funeral train in the state of Texas. Though he died in Houston on November 30, 2018, his body was brought on a funeral train for about seventy miles throughout Texas to be interred near his home. He was also the most recent politician to have been transported via funeral train in over fifty years.

Bush’s funeral train is probably the best example of the use of these services, with plenty of people available to watch its journey both online and on TV. With the Kennedy funeral train, folks were glued to their TVs or went in person to partake in giving respect. By contrast, millions of people across the globe were able to watch Bush’s funeral train on their screen.

Should You Reserve a Funeral Train?

Today, funeral trains for ordinary lay people are uncommon, given the abundance of options with air travel and automobiles. Both planes and cars can be faster and cheaper than reserving and using a funeral train.

However, the reason why funeral trains have survived all these travel advancements is the ability for communal mourning. They allow thousands or millions of people to pay their respects. Grieving in solidarity with so many people can be a cathartic experience. Nowadays, funeral trains are primarily reserved for political figures or people of international fame.

In these cases and others, there can be two reasons to use a funeral train. One is to replace a motorcade. If your loved one was a police officer that died in the line of duty, a motorcade is often appropriate. You can do the same thing with a funeral train. While the ride may be shorter and on a smaller scale, it still operates on the same principle of communal grief. 

Another reason to engage a funeral train for your loved one is for sentimental reasons. Did they love trains? Were they huge history buffs? Either reason makes a funeral train a sweet gesture. Giving them something they would have loved is a great choice for a funeral procession. 

No matter what you choose, investigate what it takes to engage one for a private event. A small local train may be easy. It depends on the rail lines in your area and how well-used they are. Since most funeral trains will be quite short, it may be quite easy to schedule. When you conduct your research, be sure to account for getting the casket on and off the train.


Sources

  1. “Documentary about George H.W. Bush funeral train on air to Discovery.” Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, 1 August 2019, www.ble-t.org/pr/news/headline.asp?id=55425
  2. “The Train That Carried RFK.” WBUR, 8 June 2018, www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/06/08/rfk-funeral-train
  3. “Lincoln Funeral Train Part One: Washington D.C. to Indianapolis.” Indiana Historical Bureau, n.d., www.in.gov/history/4168.htm
  4. “A Funeral Procession 1,700 miles long.” National Museum of American History, n.d., americanhistory.si.edu/lincoln/funeral-procession
  5. Jones, Richard. “The London Necropolis Railway: From Waterloo to Eternity and Back.” London Walking Tours, n.d., www.london-walking-tours.co.uk/secret-london/london-necropolis-railway.htm

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