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How We Say Goodbye to Our Presidents

Jimmy Carter’s pending funeral is an opportunity to reconsider the official ceremonies honoring our late presidents.
May 3, 2023
How We Say Goodbye to Our Presidents
People file past the casket of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as he lies in state inside the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Thousands of Americans filed silently past Ronald Reagan's body at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday in an emotional outpouring of respect and affection for the 40th president of the United States. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

In mid-February, the Carter Center announced that former President Jimmy Carter had elected to enter hospice care. His family has yet to publicly share his funeral plans, although they have confirmed some details to reporters.

The public observance of Carter’s passing will be an opportunity reflect the virtues and character that marked his post-presidential life—and perhaps also to move away from what has become recent tradition for honoring presidents. His commemoration can remind Americans what the presidency is supposed to be, reaffirm republican values, and honor his accomplishments and his life of humble public service.

Carter spent most of his life as a model for public service. He lived simply, he treated other humans with kindness, and he devoted his days to bettering human existence. He has embodied the definition of a citizen former president. His funeral can emphasize these qualities by demonstrating how presidents should be mourned in a republic like the United States.

On December 14, 1799, George Washington became the first former president to pass away. He too had requested a simple family funeral. Washington left no record to explain his thinking, but the choice was consistent with his commitment to republican leadership. After he stepped down from office, Washington insisted that he was just like any other citizen. He expected his fellow citizens to respect the office of the presidency but also to mourn him just like anyone else.

Shortly after Washington’s death, his plans began to go awry, as friends, neighbors, militia groups, and civic organizations arrived at Mount Vernon, demanding to pay their respects and participate in the funeral procession. Quickly, the day became a much bigger affair than Washington wanted or expected.

Across the country, communities staged over 400 mock funerals, complete with empty caskets and eulogies. The congressional ceremony held in Philadelphia twelve days after Washington’s death was, in essence, the first presidential state funeral. An empty casket, draped in black cloth, lay on the floor of the House of Representatives chambers, flanked by a portrait of the first president, a military hat, and a ceremonial sword. The funeral procession that followed, attended by government officials, members of Congress, and tens of thousands of citizens, ended at the German Lutheran Church, the largest church in the city. After an Episcopal service, Light Horse Harry Lee delivered the eulogy famously calling Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Plans to remove Washington’s body from Mount Vernon and reinter it under a monument in the new capital city or in a crypt under the Capitol were never carried out.

Large state funerals for presidents emerged as a political norm when Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy were laid to rest with state funerals, complete with cross-country transportation, media coverage, and weeks of mourning—befitting their deaths while in office (and the nature of their deaths, in the case of Lincoln and Kennedy).

The arrangements for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s funeral in 1969 were designed especially to honor his role as Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War. He lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, his casket on the catafalque used by Lincoln and Kennedy. President Nixon delivered a eulogy and the public was invited to pay respects. A funeral service was then held at Washington National Cathedral, followed by another public funeral in Abilene, Kansas, where he was then buried in a more private service at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

In the decades since, most presidential funeral services have followed a general pattern: lying in state in the Capitol, a funeral service in Washington, and a second service back home. Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were all honored with state funerals, and their coffins lay in state in the Rotunda on the Lincoln catafalque. All but Johnson had funerals at the National Cathedral (his was at Washington’s National City Christian Church). And they were all then laid to rest following second ceremonies—at the LBJ Ranch in a service led by Billy Graham; in a sunset service at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley; in a small ceremony at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum following several larger events in Michigan; and at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

Beyond the general pattern, each of these funerals had distinguishing touches planned out by the presidents, their families, and the officials charged with overseeing the ceremonies. For Bush’s funeral, the most recent, Union Pacific 4141, a locomotive from the Union Pacific heritage fleet originally presented to Bush in 2005 and painted in the Air Force One paint scheme during his administration, carried him the final miles. As Bush was laid to rest, twenty-one Navy F/A-18 Hornet jets flew overhead to mark the occasion. Experts estimated the event cost nearly $500 million dollars in expenses and lost productivity and wages for federal workers.

A few former presidents shrugged off the trend of increasingly lavish funerals that evolved through the second half of the twentieth century. Harry Truman asked that the wishes of his wife, who requested a simple service, be respected; they were. Richard Nixon’s funeral similarly exhibited less fanfare. He asked that “none of the traditional elements of a state funeral occur[] in the nation’s capital”—although all the living presidents attended his funeral service at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, where he was eulogized by Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, and (again) Billy Graham.

So full state honors and a week of mourning have become the standard. The announcement that President Carter is in his final days challenges Americans to consider whether these ceremonies are appropriate in a republic in which all citizens are theoretically equal, or whether they are more consistent with the death of an autocrat or monarch.

It is also an opportunity to reckon with presidential legacies. Should we be celebrating the full sweep of the lives of the presidents? Or instead, should we applaud their records and contributions (when warranted)? When does respect and gratitude transfer from the office to the person—and when does that become inappropriate in a republic?

The presidency is the most powerful position in the world and the person who holds the office is tasked with nearly impossible decisions every day. Accordingly, presidents are granted certain privileges, unique protections, and considerable prestige while they live in the White House. Once the president leaves office, he—and, someday, she—is accorded personal security by the Secret Service as well as taxpayer-funded office services and a pension. Former presidents can work with the National Archives to open and operate a presidential library. They are usually invited to visit extraordinary places and stand to earn significant sums for writing books and delivering speeches.

And yet, when presidents leave office, they leave the power and status behind—at least in theory. They resume their place as American citizens among equals. Their extraordinary acts belong in the history books, but their legal status is no different than the rest of us.

To be sure, funerals themselves pose little harm to the republic, but they reveal—and perhaps encourage—a much broader tendency to glorify presidents and grant them extralegal status. Presidents are not above the law or immune from legal jeopardy should they break the law. The current debate over whether former President Donald Trump should be prosecuted for criminal behavior or whether he should receive special consideration under the law reveals how far we’ve shifted from this basic principle of the republic.

As we reflect on Carter’s legacy and the emerging plan to celebrate his life and the principles he embodied, we have a rare opportunity to consider how to incorporate more of those principles into our political system. Carter has already shown us what a life of humble service after the presidency can look like; his funeral could become a final act of such service, a vivid reminder that in our republic, there is one title always “superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (Harvard, 2020) and the forthcoming Making the Presidency: John Adams and the Precedents That Forged the Republic (Oxford, 2024). She is also the co-editor of Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture (Virginia, 2023). Social media: @lmchervinsky.