The Powerful Visual Metaphor of a State Funeral

Dec. 20, 2012, 4:05 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.