The Powerful Visual Metaphor of a State Funeral
Updated: December 20, 2012 | 9:16 a.m.
December 20, 2012 | 9:05 a.m.
The casket of former President Reagan lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington on June 9, 2004, in an overhead view. (AP Photo/Chuck Kennedy, Pool)
"At this late period, when the illustrious statesman is removed beyond the reach of envy or hate, or of popular applause, all parties and interests come forward to lay memorials of gratitude and affection on his tomb."
In those words, The New York Times described the funeral of Henry Clay, the first in a tradition of honoring our most respected leaders in the Capitol Rotunda.
Perhaps those same words are fitting for Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died on Monday. Both Clay and Inouye had careers in public service that spanned five decades. Both served in each chamber of Congress. Today, Inouye will receive this same honor first bestowed upon Clay.
"The funeral ceremonies in the Senate chamber were highly impressive," The Times continued. "After the religious ceremonies, the bier was placed in the Rotunda, where a vast crowd was assembled, anxious to gaze once more on the visage of him who will live ... long after the marble columns of the Capitol shall have crumbled into dust."
Since Henry Clay laid in state in July 1852, a total of 30 public viewings have been held under the Capitol dome (today's is the 31st). These include the bodies of presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and distinguished historical figures such as Rosa Parks and Pierre Charles L'Enfant. But it also includes more symbolic processions, such as the services for the unknown soldiers of World War II and Vietnam.
There are no rules for determining who might lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda after death. Congress, by joint action, and with the family of the deceased's approval, can authorize the space for public mourning.
Lying in state is not to be confused with lying in repose. Lying in state specifically means a public viewing in the Capitol Rotunda. Lying in repose, which is a phrase used in relations to state funerals, happens elsewhere. As Slate explains, when former President Reagan's body was in the Capitol, he was lying in state. When his body was in California, he was lying in repose.
The Capitol dome itself lends to the funerals occurring there a powerful visual metaphor. There, in the center of the rotunda, in the heart of the Capitol of the United States, lies a person (on the very same platform that held Lincoln) who has altered the course of the country in a tangible way.
Below are selected images of state funerals.