The tradition and importance behind memorializing presidents

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Only a handful of times in the average American’s lifetime will they witness the process of a presidential funeral. The country will look on this week as President George H. W. Bush will go through the ceremonies that come with the passing of a person who’s served in the highest office in the country. 

Bush passed away Friday at the age of 94. 

In the past four decades, Americans have seen the deaths of five U.S. Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and now George H. W. Bush. Of those, Nixon was the only president who chose to have a simple, private service instead of a state funeral. Traditionally, these ceremonies are five days in length the White House Historical Association said.

Both President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson were brought to lay in state after their deaths at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the UT Austin campus. 

In 2007 when Lady Bird passed away, Jeff Patterson was working with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and helped to coordinate the ceremonies going through campus. Patterson said the most poignant part of that whole experience was bringing his sons to watch the procession. 

“When we talk about presidential funerals and presidential ceremonies, it is a tremendous opportunity for us as a society and as Americans to come together not only to pay respects to former leaders, but also reinforce a lot of the civic and communicative history we have,” Patterson said. Currently, he works as a lecturer in the Business, Society and Government department at U.T. Austin.  

The idea of building American identity through presidential funerals fascinates Patterson, he has studied the way presidents are memorialized for nearly a decade. It was the subject of his dissertation at UT Austin and is working to write a book on the topic. 

“Most people don’t know, but the process for planning a presidential funeral starts really when the president gets elected and takes office, and that’s generally because they want to make sure they’re prepared God forbid there’s an assassination or death while the president is in office,” he said.

Patterson explained that many of the details — from the guest list, to the locations in the procession, even the speed limit for the procession — will be decided early on in the presidency, then compiled into a manual which is used when that president dies. The Military District of Washington conducts the ceremonies. 

In a sense, Patterson explained, these services are the president’s chance to craft their last message about what their legacy will be. 

He added that the death of a president often inspires conversations about what the country was like during that presidency, and that president’s decisions, both good and bad. 

Patterson expects that President Bush’s passing will inspire conversations about the fall of Soviet communism, the Gulf War and the American economy in the late 20th century. 

“But I think what it does more than anything, is it shows the imperfections of people who serve as public  servants, but also the realization, that we only make things better by when we come together and when we have that dialogue and when we think about how we work together to achieve our goals and solve our problems,” Patterson said. 

“I think the thing people get wrong most [about presidential funerals] is the sense that somehow we’re spending all this money simply to glorify a former president and it has no practical benefit, I think that’s wrong and I think it has a tremendous benefit for us to be able to communicate with everyone to kind of bring everyone together in a circumstance like this,” he added.

“Something like this, especially with a president like President Bush, I think brings people together and I think that’s extremely important, now more than ever to come together and identify ourselves as Americans not by party, not by ideology, not by doctrine, and I think that just needs to be reinforced as much as it possibly can,” Patterson said. 

Originally, he explained, presidents were buried no differently than any other citizens. 

According to the White House Historical Association, prior to the death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841, there was no established protocol for presidential mourning or funerals. Harrison’s ceremony was simple and attended by invitation only. A U.S. Marines band played dirges and the coffin was taken on a funeral car to a procession leading to the Congressional Cemetery, where the coffin was placed in a temporary spot until winter passed. 

The ceremonies around Harrison’s death were modeled after royal funerals.

Often the ceremonies include a flag draped coffin, a procession of the casket through Washington D.C. and gunfire salutes. 

Presidents will tailor their memorial plans to the places and people they value, for example President Ford chose to lie in state in front of both the House and Senate chambers as he served in both. 

Many presidents will have their coffin lie in state in the Capitol rotunda on the same bier Abraham Lincoln’s coffin was once laid on. 

President George H.W. Bush is scheduled to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda from Monday through Wednesday, then he will be transported to the Washington National Cathedral for a memorial service. Next he will be transported to Houston where he will lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church and finally he will be transported by train to College Station at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. In College Station, he will be buried next to his wife Barbara and their daughter Robin. 

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