Lying in State: The History Behind the Solemn Tradition - HISTORY

US Capitol police officers salute the caskets of Special Agent John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut as they lie in honor in the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 1998. Gibson and Chestnut were killed when a man opened fire inside the building after running through metal detectors at the door. 

In addition to “lying in state,” Congress also recognizes “lying in honor” for private citizens. Four people—Capitol police officers Jacob Joseph Chestnut and John Michael Gibson who were killed in the line of duty, in 1998, civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 and the Rev. Billy Graham in 2018—have received the recognition. “Chestnut and Gibson were the first people to ever lie in honor in the Rotunda,” Campbell says.

According to Campbell, following John F. Kennedy’s death, Congress proclaimed that all presidents would lie in state upon their deaths if it was so desired by their families. Since then, two families have declined the ceremony.

“One was Nixon because they were afraid it was going to turn into a controversy,” she says. “The other was Truman, because his wife never liked Washington, she never wanted to be in Washington, and she didn’t especially like being first lady. So he made a decision that he wasn’t going to make Bess have to go through a state funeral.”

Honorees, Elijah Cummings, John Lewis and City Planner, L'Enfant

Other notable tributes include those of Rep. Elijah Cummings, who, in 2019, was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state, in Statuary Hall. Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17, 2020, was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda. J. Edgar Hoover is the sole FBI director to lie in state. 

And, Campbell notes, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, an architect famed for planning the city of Washington, D.C., received his lying in state honors more than 80 years after his death.

“He died in 1825, he laid in state in 1909,” she says. “They dug him up from Digges farm in Prince George's County, Maryland in order to be re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery. They thought, well, he helped plan the city so why don't we put him in the Capitol?” 

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