The funeral of a president is a ritual replete with tradition and specifics. Presidents usually make preparations for their own funerals with the assistance of their families. Sometimes, that planning is years in the making. The plans are usually kept secret between very close members of the family and the Washington Military District. The arrangements are never announced until after a President passes away.
What we do know is that before the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, he filed a 211-page document detailing funeral instructions for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington to follow.
Following his death, former President George H.W. Bush’s casket was first taken to Washington, D.C., where his body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, providing an opportunity for legislators and other government dignitaries, along with the public, to pay their respects.
According to his request, President George H.W. Bush wanted specific things for his funeral. His days as a pilot during World War II may be why he asked specifically for an aerial flyover of fighter jets by the U.S. Air Force in the missing man formation. The fly-bys will take place during his state funeral, as well as his final interment.
George H.W. Bush also provided instructions to forego the presidential fanfare and stated that he does not want "Hail to the Chief: to be performed during his final interment at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
Procedurally, the family provides details of the funeral plans to the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which is in charge of implementing them.
The President, former Presidents and President-elect are all entitled to a state funeral, but then family decides if they actually get one, or just how involved it will be.
What happens in Washington, D.C. unfolds according to guidelines that date back to the mid-1800s and have been reshaped over time. They often involve funeral processions down Pennsylvania Avenue, lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and a memorial service, usually at the Washington National Cathedral.
Protocol dictates that flags will be flown at half-staff for a period of thirty days for a President. At the discretion of the sitting President, there’s an executive order issued authorizing the closure of federal offices and buildings on a national day of mourning.
Looking back at history, eight presidents have had funeral processions down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., including all four presidents to die by assassination specifically, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy.
But not all presidential funerals are the same. Each has unique qualities per the President’s and family’s request. Richard Nixon’s family, acting on his wishes, opted out of the procession and other Washington traditions when he died in 1994. His presidency was not only shortened, but also forever tainted by the Watergate scandal.
John F. Kennedy’s funeral was modeled after those of Abraham Lincoln, at the request of the new widow, Jacqueline, in her first public statement after the assassination. Using information from the Library of Congress about Lincoln’s state funeral, the East Room of the White House was quickly transformed into a venue for Kennedy’s remains to lie in state, matching the exact description of what it was like nearly a century earlier for Lincoln.
More than 250,000 mourners filed past the slain President’s casket in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Millions more viewed on what was then the most watched funeral of an American president.