A moment in history: The significance, traditions behind state funerals

By Cathy Hernandez - Reporter, Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Producer

HOUSTON - St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston – where former President George H.W. Bush was a member for over 50 years – is preparing for his final visit. 

However, before flying back to Houston for Wednesday’s public viewing, there will be a presidential state funeral service in Washington, D.C., steeped in tradition and deep history.

Planned by the president himself, the state funeral is a historic and traditional event held for a president who has passed away. 

“The presidency is an office that is kind of replete with tradition and symbolism, and it’s sort of the most monarchal branch we have.” said Dr. Chris Hammons a professor at Houston Baptist University and White House intern during the late president’s term. “The service at the cathedral is sort of the official farewell of the presidency, in terms of his internment.”

According to Hammons, state funerals are planned far in advance by the president, their family and the military.

“It’s something they’re actually asked to do when they come into office in the event they should die in office,” Hammon said. “(The state funeral) is historic. We only have a few living presidents at any given time. When they die, it really represents an end of an era.”

Jim McGrath, Bush’s spokesperson, shared a tweet saying, “Briefed in 2011 about his funeral and lying in state, the 41st President asked with typical humility, ‘Do you think anyone will come?’ Tonight, people are waiting for hours to pay their respects”

Bush’s service at the cathedral is expected to draw a capacity, invitation-only crowd of 3,000 people, and seating arrangements will include the presidential party followed by chiefs of state arranged alphabetically by the English spelling of their countries. It's a tradition dating back to the mid-1800s.

“The heads of states and dignitaries from all over the world will be invited, members of Congress," Hammons said. "It’s always sort of interesting to see who shows up. It could be the Queen of England, she might send Prince William.”

The public now knows Prince Charles will be in attendance, Not Prince William. 

All living former presidents will also be in attendance.

It was Bush himself who outlined his wishes before his death.

“The presidents get to lay out their own state funeral plan when they come into office so the families have a tremendous amount of input,” said Hammons.

Bush and his family chose the hymns, readings and scriptures for the service Wednesday.

The last president to be honored at the national cathedral was the late President Gerald Ford, who died Dec. 26, 2006 at the age of 93. His service at the cathedral was Jan. 2, 2007.

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