In the age of television, the world has watched the funerals of nine U.S. presidents. These funerals had many stages, including, rites in the city of death, lying in state in Capitol Rotunda, a church service in Washington, and rites at the place of burial. For George H.W. Bush and his two immediate predecessors in death, the key stage was the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. At two hours and nine minutes, Bush’s service was a full forty minutes longer than either of theirs, and four times longer than the 1969 service at the cathedral for President Eisenhower. (Details below)
One reason for the greater length of the cathedral funerals for Reagan, Ford, and Bush is that they have included eulogies. Former president Dwight Eisenhower was eulogized by President Richard Nixon in the Capitol Rotunda as was former Herbert Hoover by president Lyndon Johnson. There were no eulogies or even homilies the church services for Hoover and Eisenhower.
During ceremonies in the Rotunda, many attendees must stand. They are subject to fatigue. At the ceremony for Gerald Ford in December 2006, Michigan congressman William Broomfield collapsed. Delivering the eulogies in a church presents a more comfortable situation, though with the consequence of more intimately mixing the civic and the religious.
Nixon’s funeral included five addresses. There were four tributes by friends, family, or national leaders and one homily by a clergyman. The same pattern has been followed in subsequent services. Bush’s funeral was longer than Reagan’s and Ford’s not because of a greater number of addresses, but because of their greater average length and the inclusion of longer scripture readings, additional prayers, and music.
The three recent funerals have included more music including offerings by military and ecclesiastical groups and, in the case of Reagan and Ford, by famous musicians. They have also been conducted not only in an Episcopal cathedral, but by Episcopal clergy and according to Episcopal liturgies. While this is no surprise for Episcopalians Ford and Bush, Reagan was at the time of his death a Presbyterian. Eisenhower was also a Presbyterian, and when he was buried from the cathedral his service was led primarily by a Presbyterian minister according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Today the Episcopal Church calls for more participation by the congregation in funeral than it did in former times. At Hoover’s Episcopal funeral in 1964, the congregation was asked to stand, sit, kneel, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and respond to other prayers with, “Amen.” At Bush’s funeral the congregation was not asked to kneel but they were was invited to sing two hymns, recite acclamations after scripture readings, participate in a litany, and recite the Apostles’ Creed as well as respond to the prayers with an “Amen.” Much of this stems from the new Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 as part of the liturgical reform movement that also reshaped Roman Catholic worship and that of many other denominations. One effect of these changes has been to lengthen the service.
It is tempting to hypothesize that the war-time funerals of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson were simpler out of deference to the many Americans who were loosing loved ones in the service of their country. It is probably truer to say that American funeral custom has changed. While singer Aretha Franklin’s day-long funeral in August was exceptional, it is indicative of a trend among some Americans.
I remember that when I was a child, my father took pride in saying that the Book of Common Prayer provided the same funeral for “king and commoner.” Comparing the Bush funeral to those in my local parish church, that is still true. It is simply that kings, or in this case presidents, have friends who are senators, prime ministers, and award-winning musicians.
Made for Television
While the funerals of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson were all well televised according to the capacity of their day, Nixon’s 1994 California funeral was the first to be carefully crafted for television in the era of the 24/7 news cycle. Reagan’s funeral a decade later did the same, but on a much larger scale. It set a new standard.
Some traditional aspects of Reagan’s funeral, such as the horse-drawn procession, were not used by Ford and Bush. Other aspects such as the more elaborate church service were. From ancient times until the age of television, slow processions were a major way the public participated in funerals. They remained so through the mid-twentieth century for the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as media have involved, so has the means of public participation. Today televised indoor services receive the most attention.
Length of Presidential Funerals in Churches in Washington, D.C.
Six of the nine televised presidential funerals have involved a service at a D.C. church with the body present. The length of the church funeral given below is from the moment the clergy receive the body outside the church to when the body exits the church. It excludes outdoor military honors.
(The timings are based on videos of the services provided at the links below. An exception is Eisenhower’s. I have not yet located a recording of the complete service, so the time is based on information provided by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.)
1963, November 25, John F. Kennedy, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, pontifical low requiem mass, eulogy by the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, 1 hour 5 minutes.
1969, March 31, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washington National Cathedral, funeral service, 30 minutes.
1973, January 25, Lyndon B. Johnson, National City Christian Church, funeral service including addresses by W. Marvin Watson and the Reverend George Davis, 54 minutes.
2004, June 11, Ronald W. Reagan, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and the Reverend John C. Danforth, 1 hour, 30 minutes.
2007, January 2, Gerald R. Ford, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George H.W. Bush, Henry A. Kissinger, Thomas J. Brokaw, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Robert Certain, 1 hour 29 minutes
2018, December 5, George H.W. Bush, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite II including addresses by Jon Meacham, Brian Mulroney, Alan K. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., 2 hours, 9 minutes.F
Length of Funerals Elsewhere
The funerals of Hoover, Truman, and Nixon each included a televised religious service, but not from a Washington church.
1964, 21 October, Herbert C. Hoover, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, New York, Burial of the Dead, President Johnson attended the service which occurred before Hoover was taken to Washington to lie in state. Hoover lay in repose before and after the service, so unlike the others the length of the service does not include a procession into and out of the church, 15 minutes.
1972, 28 December, Harry S Truman, Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri, indoor funeral service, 39 minutes.
This was a private family service. President Nixon had flown to Independence to pay his respects to Mrs. Truman earlier and did not attend the service nor the official memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on January 5 which was attended by other government officials and foreign dignitaries. I do not believe that service was televised. According to the New York Times it included an address by the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and lasted 40 minutes.
1994, April 27, Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, funeral service including addresses by Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Billy Graham. While the burial service followed immediately at a slightly different location on the same site, the portion corresponding to the church services above was 1 hour 8 minutes.