Lying in State: What Does it Mean and Who Has Done It?


The flag-draped casket of John McCain inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 31. Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America

Friday, the remains of Senator John McCain of Arizona lay in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The media has told us that only 30 others have been so honored.

What does it mean to lie “in State”? There’s the obvious part that someone really important has died and the public is showing its respect for the life of the deceased by making a big show out of his or her death by publicly displaying the remains, draping the coffin with a flag and having members of the military stand guard while members of the public walk past.

But did you know (and I’ll bet you didn’t) that there are other ways we show our respect to those who have passed away, who have lived lives deemed worthy of a show of public respect? Yep. They’re called “Lying in Honor” and “Lying in Repose.” So, what’s the difference,” you ask?

Thank you for asking!

Lying in Repose

In the United States, when the deceased person is placed in a location other than the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, like the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, they lie in repose, as was the case following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.[2] For example:

Supreme Court Justices “lie in repose” in the Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court Building.

Not everyone eligible to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda does so. For instance, the body of former President Richard Nixon lay in repose at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, Senator Edward Kennedy‘s body lay in repose at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and Senator Robert Byrd‘s body lay in repose in the Senate chamber at the Capitol.[4]

Lying in Honor

Anyone not from government whose remains are put in public view in a government building is said to be lying in honor, accompanied by a Capitol Police guard.

The United States Congress has created a manner similar to Lying in State to honor distinguished Americans who do not qualify for a lying in state designation. In the process of “lying in honor,” the honor guard in the Rotunda is provided by the Capitol Police or another suitable source. [15][16]

Presidents generally lie in repose in the East Room of the White House before lying in state at the capitol.

President Abraham Lincoln lying in repose in the White House/

Very few individuals have received this honor. They include:

Other notable individuals, several of them being the Chief Justice of the United States, have lain in state in the United States Supreme Court Building while other individuals such as Ronald H. Brown, have lain in state in the Herbert C. Hoover Building.[19]

The main difference between lying in state and lying in honor is the designated guard of honor that keeps watch over the casket. When a person lies in state, a guard of honor from the United States Armed Forces watch over the casket; when a person lies in honor, the United States Capitol Policewatches as a civilian guard of honor over the casket.
The body of President John F. Kennedy lying in state in November 1963.

And so I wondered, “Who are those others who have lain in state at the US Capitol Rotunda?”

Eleven have been presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Taft, Kennedy, Hoover, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan and Ford.

In case you were wondering also, here they are in chronological order, thanks to Wikipedia:

Oh, and what about that mysterious box draped in black fabric under the casket?

Why, its a catafalque!

noun; a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.
The Lincoln catafalque is a catafalque hastily constructed in 1865 to support the casket of Abraham Lincoln while the president’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotundain Washington, D.C. The catafalque has since been used for all those who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda, as listed below. When not in use, the catafalque is kept in the United States Capitol Visitor Center in a small vaulted chamber. It was previously kept in an area called Washington’s Tomb, which was originally intended, but never used, as the burial place for George Washington, the first President of the United States.

So there you have it! You may now converse eloquently with your friends at cocktail parties, over dinner, or on quiet walks about state funerals of all varieties. Aren’t you glad you asked! I am.

In case you were wondering . . .