Understanding Presidential Funeral Traditions

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, there has been a lot of talk about funerals in the news lately. Presidential funerals are a nation-wide focus as the country mourns the loss of a great leader. And with most presidents beginning to plan their funerals after they move into the White House, each presidential funeral has both custom traditions mixed with personal wishes. So let’s take a look at a few presidential funeral traditions we’ve seen over the years.

While each president has the opportunity to incorporate personal aspects into their funeral services, there are a few rites and ceremonies that are seen among the majority of presidential funerals. For example, there is often a public viewing of the closed casket held in the president’s home state. Additionally, the funeral procession tends to be the same — the procession is along Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. towards the intersection of Constitution and 16th street. The procession will end at the U.S. Capitol, where a formal memorial service is held.

Over the years, presidential funeral traditions have changed and adapted. The first U.S. president to have a publicly conducted funeral was Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865. His funeral lead to the beginning of “state funerals”, giving the public, including even you the opportunity to pay your respects if desired.

Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the U.S. government issued a process of funeral planning details and protocols that should be followed after a president’s death. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that presidents began to plan their own funerals so people knew the protocols they wished to be followed. Planning a funeral in advance isn’t just common among presidents — an AARP survey found that one in three people have begun funeral pre-planning and one in four people have even pre-paid for their funeral.

George H.W. Bush’s funeral followed many traditions, like having the presence of all living presidents. But there were also personal details incorporated, like wearing socks with planes in memory of his World War II service.

All funerals give you the opportunity to pay your respects and this is especially true with presidential funerals. While some aspects are reserved for friends and family, most presidential funerals allow the public to say goodbye to a distinguished leader.

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