12 Common Presidential Funeral Traditions in the US


The U.S. presidency can be a tumultuous topic at times. However, it doesn’t strip this title of its power or prestige, even when an individual dies. You may be curious about different funeral traditions associated with the presidency. How many are there? What are some important ones? How did they come to be?

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In this post, we’ll discuss a few common presidential funeral traditions. Some of what we’ll discuss may seem awfully familiar to the traditions you observe in your own family. However, nearly all of them are of presidential proportion.  

1. Lying In State

The tradition of lying in state began in 1852 after the death of a former senator, Henry Clay. Therefore, lying in state is not an honor reserved just for presidents. Since the tradition began, however, 12 U.S. presidents have done so. This includes Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. 

But what exactly does lying in state entail? When a prominent government figurehead dies, he or she will lie in state in public view. The location is typically in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. This occurs prior to any religious service and lasts for about a day or so. The Capitol is also the end point of the funeral procession from the White House, described in more detail later on. 

It’s also worth noting that McKinley, Harding, JFK, and Roosevelt, to name a few, all first lied in state in the East Room of the White House prior to being taken to the Capitol. Furthermore, if lying in state does not occur at the capitol, this phenomenon is referred to as “lying in repose.” When an honorable citizen dies and lies in public view, it is called “lying in honor.”

As you can imagine, this is a key way to honor deceased presidents, officials, and honorable citizens. Putting a casket on display in public view allows for more mourners to pay their respects than would occur at a private funeral, for example. 

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2. The Vice President Steps In

The fact that the vice president takes over in the event the president dies or can no longer fulfill his duties is a basic bit of government knowledge, but you may be interested in a refresh. Throughout U.S. history, eight presidents have died in office. Four presidents who died in office were killed, and four passed away due to natural causes.

Among those who were killed include Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. Some of these four did not die immediately, making the blanket term, “assassination,” technically incorrect. Instead, some died later due to complications from gunshot wounds. The other four presidents who died in office include Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

3. Location of Burial and Burial by Family

As you can expect, there are several traditions tied to where U.S. presidents are buried. For example, if a president was a veteran, he or she will receive a military burial. In other cases, the president will be buried by his or her family members in another relevant location. 

As a way of showing respect to a former or current president, it is common for his or her hometown to build or dedicate at least one special landmark in their name such as museums, libraries, and so on. This is also a common practice at universities that presidents have attended. 

In turn, it is common for presidents to choose to be buried in their home state or town as a sign of respect and to recognize where they came from. This is a source of great pride for states and cities and asserts the importance of where we come from and how it shapes us. 

Of note, however, “burial place” does not necessarily align with birthplace. For example, Abraham Lincoln was actually born in Kentucky. He was a resident of Illinois later in life, hence his burial there. 

4. Where First Ladies Are Buried

There is not a standard procedure or tradition for where first ladies are laid to rest. It’s typical, however, that first ladies outlive their husbands. The most common practice is that wives are laid to rest next to their husbands. Even the two former first ladies who remarried, Frances Cleveland Preston and Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, chose to be buried alongside their first husbands, both presidents.

5. National Cemeteries

Though we touched a bit on where presidents are typically buried, it is also worth discussing the tradition of burial in national cemeteries. National cemeteries first came about during the Civil War Era, with an initial 14 cemeteries built. Now, there are 141 national cemeteries in the U.S., with one in the territory of Puerto Rico. 

Besides being the burial site of many former presidents, national cemeteries serve as a way to provide dignified burials to veterans of all stature. Military burials are typically completed at no cost to family members. And furthermore, these gravesites are cared for meticulously and indefinitely.  

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6. Presidents Are Consulted Early On

Another tradition for presidential funerals is that presidents are asked early on in their term what kind of service they would like and any other details. Admittedly by the White House History Organization, this can be a strange request. However, there are many benefits to documenting your end-of-life wishes early and having these discussions, both with yourself and your family.

7. Funeral Trains

Another presidential funeral tradition is called a funeral train. Funeral trains are fairly self-explanatory, though they have a bit more to them. In fact, they didn’t even originate in the U.S., but in the U.K. in London. Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be transported by funeral train, which ran from Washington D.C. to his home state and burial site in Illinois.

This first funeral train was such a spectacle, in fact, that The War Department scheduled a series of spots at different cities along the way. There were approximately 150 spots over 1,700 miles in which mourning citizens could pay their respects since they were unable to come to the White House. 

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,” according to the Indiana Historical Bureau. Lincoln’s funeral train was so impactful and widespread that it became its own historical moment.

In addition to Lincoln, George H.W. Bush is another former president to be laid to rest after a funeral train. Rather than thousands of miles, however, H.W. Bush was transported about 70 miles through his home state and site of burial in Texas. As this procession was much more recent, even more U.S. citizens and people around the world could tune in and catch a glimpse. 

8. When the Funeral Procession Occurs

Another big question you may have is when the funeral proceedings occur. It is expected that presidential funerals occur the day after he or she dies. The same goes for most other prominent officials. The only exception is if the day after is a Sunday or a holiday, in which case the proceedings are pushed to the following day. 

In addition to other traditions described above, there are also a few others expected for presidential funerals. Whether the funeral procession is occurring by train, horse-drawn caisson, or motorcade, it is likely that at least two of these methods of transport are used in every case. 

9. Who’s In the Immediate Funeral Procession?

In addition to funeral trains, horse-drawn caissons are also considered traditional to transport the president along Pennsylvania Avenue to the capitol where he or she may lie in state. Some other presidents, however, may opt for a different means of transportation, called motorcades. 

For horse-drawn caissons, in particular, six horses of the same color pull the structure, accompanied by another horse in the lead mounted by a member of “The Old Guard.” Also immediately in the procession are eight total pallbearers and three marching units made up of the National Guard, reserve, active-duty, and other personnel.

Motorcades may run through Washington D.C. or through another location significant to a late president, such as Ford who was taken through Alexandria, Virginia, and by the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. 

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10. Flags At Half-Mast

When officials or foreign dignitaries die or other tragedies occur, flags at government buildings, schools, libraries, museums, and other public places are flown at half-mast as a sign of respect. This tradition began in the 17th century. The official act for presidents, however, is called a presidential proclamation. The significance of the flag-lowering is to make room for an invisible “flag of death.” 

Another term you may hear is that flags will be flown at “half-staff.” Half-staff and half-mast are in fact interchangeable, even though half-staff technically means halfway down the flagpole. Flags also have significance in presidential processions, as three color guards march directly in front of the caisson. The one in the center bears the nation’s colors, or the flag. 

11. Décor and Embellishments

When a president dies, there is also the matter of funeral decorations. These decorations are typical surrounding the Capitol, White House, laid upon the actual casket and caisson, as well as other prominent areas. The presidential portrait is also draped in black fabric and bouquets are placed underneath. 

The intricacy of presidential funeral decorations has evolved over the years from highly elaborate with Garfield, to more simplistic with McKinley. What has continued, however, is the undeniable uniqueness of decorations for presidents like FDR and JFK. In turn, though, they have established a standard for the appearance of said décor. 

12. Other Sights and Sounds 

There is also the gun salute made several times during presidential funerals, notably a 21-gun salute at noon and later a 50-gun salute to honor each state. As described above, each of the three marching units is accompanied by a military band. Bands play martial music, which will include a combination of drums and bagpipers. 

Traditions Can Evolve

The majority of the traditions we described above are incredibly common. However, traditions also have the potential to evolve over time, even if in small ways. As you may have learned, much of what goes into the actual funeral procession of presidents is fairly set in stone. 

But that doesn’t remove the ability for each president and his or her family to be consulted far before arrangements must be finalized. While not guaranteed to ensure your funeral will be of presidential proportions, you can document your end-of-life wishes for free with Cake

  1. Faulkner, Claire. “A Presidential Funeral.” White House History Org. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/a-presidental-funeral

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