What Does ‘Lying in State’ Mean When a Someone Dies?

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When a government official dies, you might read that they’re “lying in state” at a governmental building. Lying in state is an honor reserved for members of the government when they pass away. It’s a tradition that many countries around the world honor and uphold. 

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In the United States, the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is where government figureheads might lie in state after death. Since the tradition began with Henry Clay’s lying-in-state in 1852, the Rotunda has hosted some of the country’s leaders and distinguished statespeople as they lie in state. 

Lying in state at the United States capitol is one of the rarest posthumous ceremonies out there. Since 1952, only 32 government officials have lied in state at the Capitol. So, what does it mean to “lie in state” in the United States? 

What Happens When Someone is Lying in State?

Lying in state is what it’s called when a government official’s casket is displayed at a government building for public viewing. It often lasts a full day or even several days, and it takes place before the person’s funeral and burial. 

The casket sits in view in the area known as the Rotunda at the United States Capitol. It sits on a catafalque (a decorative platform or bier covered in cloth), which was constructed for Abraham Lincoln’s lying-in-state. 

Members of the public then have the opportunity to line up to view the casket during designated hours. Five members of the U.S. Armed Forces guard and protect the casket. 

The phrase “lying in state” sometimes gets used interchangeably with the similar terms, “lying in repose” and “lying in honor.” But the three phrases have different meanings. 

Difference between lying in state vs. lying in repose

When a government official’s casket is on display for public viewing at a capitol building, including the Rotunda at the national capitol, it’s known as “lying in state.” 

If that same government official’s casket is on display for public viewing at any location other than a capitol building, it’s described as “lying in repose.” 

For example, Senator Edward M. Kennedy lied “in repose” at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Even though he was a member of government, he was not lying “in state” because his casket was not displayed at a capitol building. 

Difference between lying in state vs. lying in honor

Another similar phrase is “lying in honor.” This phrase applies to citizens (as opposed to government officials) who have their caskets displayed for public viewing at a capitol or government building. 

So, while JFK’s viewing at the Capitol would be described as “lying in state,” Rosa Park’s viewing in the same location would accurately be called “lying in honor.” Lying in honor at the Rotunda in Washington D.C. is reserved for important national leaders who never actually served as members of the government. 

Lying in honor also differs from lying in state in that a casket lying in honor is guarded by Honor Guards from the Capitol Police. A casket of someone lying in honor has five Honor Guards from the U.S. Armed Forces, as mentioned above. And so far, individuals who have laid in honor have had biers other than the catafalque. 

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Who Traditionally Lies in State at the Capitol? 

The tradition of lying in state began with U.S. Senator Henry Clay in 1852. And until the 20th century, it was an honor typically reserved for presidents or members of Congress who died in office. 

Today, any official who served the nation with honor may lie in state at the nation’s Capitol. There are no laws or written rules specifying who can or cannot lie in state at the Rotunda. 

Instead, the House and Senate work together to decide when and how the Rotunda may be used. They approve each use of the Rotunda through joint action (passing concurrent resolutions). 

But customarily, only presidents, members of Congress, and military leaders lie in state at the Capitol, whether they died in-office or in retirement. 

The family’s decision

For a qualified governmental official, Congress extends an invitation to the person’s family to hold a lying-in-state at the Capitol building. Ultimately, the family decides whether or not to hold the ceremony. And they often base that decision on the will and testament or last wishes of the deceased. 

Not every person who’s invited to hold a lying-in-state ceremony at the Capitol chooses to do so. For example, Harry S. Truman decided he didn’t want to lie in state. He reportedly hated large ceremonies, and he knew his wife was no fan of government fanfare. 

The nation’s leaders

Although Truman refused the honor, many of the people who’ve lied in state at the Capitol were U.S. presidents. Since 1852, 12 U.S. presidents have lied in state there, including Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Robert A. Taft. Other individuals who might be invited to lie in state at the Capitol include members of Congress and other statespeople. 

Government officials who work at the state level may also lie in state, but they typically do so at a state capitol building. 

7 Recent Officials Who Who Laid in State

To help demonstrate the kind of people who lie in state at our nation’s Capitol, here’s a list of seven recent officials who held the honor. 

John R. Lewis (2020)

John Lewis was a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, in office from January 3, 1987, until his death on July 17, 2020. The House granted use of the Rotunda for Lewis’s lying-in-state on July 27, 2020. He lay in state from July 27 to July 28. 

Elijah Cummings (2019)

Elijah Cummings was the first African American lawmaker to lie in state at the United States Capitol. Cummings was a Representative from Baltimore, Maryland and an influential member of the Democratic party. He died on October 17, 2019, and he lied in state at the Capitol on October 24. 

George H.W. Bush (2018)

George Herbert Walker Bush is the most recent former-president to lie in state at the Capitol. 

Before his presidency, he served as a member of the House of Representatives from the state of Texas from January 3, 1967, to January 3, 1971. 

Bush also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1973; as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1974 to 1976; as director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977; and as Vice President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. 

George H.W. Bush died on November 30, 2018, and use of the Rotunda was granted for his lying-in-state on December 3. He laid in state from December 3 to December 5. 

John McCain (2018)

John McCain was a member of the House of Representatives from Arizona from 1983 to 1987. He was a U.S. Senator from 1987 until his death on August 25, 2018. Congress granted use of the Rotunda for his lying-in-state on August 28, and he laid in state on August 31. 

Daniel K. Inouye (2012)

Senator Daniel Inouye was the first congressman to represent the state of Hawaii when it became a state in 1959. He served as a member of the U.S. Senate from 1963 until his death in 2012. 

Inouye was also the second-longest serving senator in U.S. history, and he served as president pro tempore of the United States Senate. He was a WWII veteran and granted the Medal of Honor for his military service. Inouye laid in state at the Capitol on December 20, 2012. 

Gerald Ford (2007)

Gerald R. Ford served as President of the United States from August 9, 1974, to January 20, 1977. Before that, he served as a member of the House of Representatives, as well as Vice President of the United States. 

Ford died on December 26, 2006. The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Majority Leader of the Senate granted special authority for use of the Rotunda (without passing a concurrent resolution, due to the time of year). He laid in state from December 30, 2006 to January 2, 2007. 

Ronald Reagan

Another former-U.S. president to lie in state at the Capitol, Ronald Reagan served from 1981 to 1989. Before his presidency, Reagan served as the governor of California from 1967 to 1975. He died on June 5, 2004, and Congress granted use of the Rotunda for his lying-in-state on June 9. Reagan laid in state at the Rotunda from June 9 to June 11. 

Lying in State as a Colloquialism 

Technically, “lying in state” refers to the public viewing ceremony of a government official. But if you see (or hear) the phrase in another context, it isn’t necessarily incorrect.

“Lying in state” is both a technical term, as described, and a colloquialism. And it’s a term you’ll often see used in reference to celebrity deaths and funerals for important persons. 

For example, news agencies widely reported Aretha Franklin’s “lying in state” at the Wright Museum in Detroit after her death in 2018. 

Technically, Franklin was lying “in repose,” not “in state.” But the singer and icon held such a place of importance, culturally, that many chose to use the more official terminology. 

Whether you consider “lying in state” a strict term or a colloquialism, you now know what it means—on a technical level—to lie in state. 


Sources

  1. “Lying in state or honor.” Architect of the Capitol. www.aoc.gov/what-we-do/programs-ceremonies/lying-in-state-honor
  2. “Individuals who have lain in state or in honor.” History, Art & Archives (United States House of Representatives). history.house.gov/Institution/Lie-In-State/Lie-In-State-Honor/
  3. Gura, David. “‘Lying in repose’ vs. ‘lying in state’ vs. ‘lying in honor.’ What’s the difference?” NPR. 26 August 2009. www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2009/08/lying_in_repose_v_lying_in_sta.html
  4. Victor, Daniel and Tsang, Amie. “George Bush is lying in state. Here’s what that means.” The New York Times. 30 August 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/us/politics/lying-in-state.html

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