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The Powerful Visual Metaphor of a State Funeral The Powerful Visual Metaphor of a State Funeral

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Congress

The Powerful Visual Metaphor of a State Funeral

photo of Brian Resnick
December 20, 2012

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.

In this photo provided by the Library of Congress, President Lincoln's funeral procession heads down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol on April 19, 1865.(AP Photo/Library of Congress)

President Harding places a wreath on the casket of an unknown soldier from World War I in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 11, 1921, in Washington.(AP Photo)

Mourners continue to file past the casket of former President Eisenhower, lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda on March 31, 1969.(AP Photo)

 

The casket of former President Johnson is shown in this Jan. 24, 1973, photo taken with a wide-angle lens from the top of the Capitol Rotunda, as the former president's remains lie in state.(AP Photo)

Jacqueline Kennedy kisses the casket of her husband in the Rotunda of the Capitol on Nov. 24, 1963. Daughter Caroline kneels alongside.(AP Photo)

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren E. Burger eulogizes J. Edgar Hoover as the body of the FBI director lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C. on May 3, 1977.  (AP Photo)

 

People walk past the casket of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 31, 2005. More than 30,000 Americans streamed through the Rotunda to pay tribute.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Former first lady Nancy Reagan touches the casket of her husband, Ronald Reagan, who was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda on June 9, 2004.(AP Photo/Rick McKay, Pool)

People crowd the southwest side of the Capitol, forming serpentine lines on June 9, 2004, to pay their last respects to former President Reagan.(AP Photos/Charlie Tasnadi)

 
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