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Lying in State: The History Behind the Solemn Tradition

September 23, 2020 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The tradition, bestowed as a final tribute, began in 1852, with the death of Henry Clay.

Since 1852, 35 individuals have received the high honor of lying in state: 12 presidents, two vice presidents, plus members of Congress, unknown soldiers, military heroes, a city planner, and U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Bestowed as a final tribute to distinguished government officials and military officers, a lying in state ceremony requires the approval of a concurrent resolution by Congress in order to take place in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A service, accompanied by full military honors, is followed by an invitation for the public to pay its respects.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: First Woman to Lie in State

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18, 2020, will become the first woman to be recognized with the tribute (and the second Supreme Court justice—honoree President William Howard Taft served as chief justice after his presidency). Ginsburg will be placed in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. (Statuary Hall is controlled by the House, so Senate approval was not needed.)

“The Rotunda is part of the Capitol that belongs to everybody, it’s not a House room or a Senate room,” says Jane Campbell, president and CEO of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “The place where you lie in state is actually right in the center of Washington, and so you’re technically in all four quadrants at the same time.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brooklyn’s Own Supreme Court Justice (TV-PG; 2:31)

WATCH: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brooklyn’s Own Supreme Court Justice

Henry Clay, Then Abraham Lincoln: First to Lie in State

Kentucky Senator and Speaker of the House Henry Clay was the first to be honored with the recognition in 1852, followed by President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865. The original platform on which Lincoln’s casket rested, called a catafalque and constructed of simple pine boards draped in black cloth, has been preserved and used in most of the nation’s lying-in-state services ever since.

The catafalque, which can be seen at the Capitol Visitor Center when not in use, has been reinforced over the years, according to Campbell. President Ronald Reagan, for example, had a heavy, marble-lined coffin that needed extra support. Also, the black fabric draping that covers the catafalque has been replaced several times. It’s also been lent out to the U.S. Supreme Court and other branches of …read more


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