Friday, September 07, 2007

Lying in State? Or Lying in Repose?

Today's official blog of Ohio's Republican Party announced funeral plans for Representative Paul Gilmor, who died several days ago. Included was an itinerary, which read partly:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The Ohio Statehouse
Columbus, Ohio 43215
9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Congressman Gillmor lies in state in the Statehouse Rotunda
That term, lying in state, didn't look right to me. I was fairly certain that only the body of a President or that of a deceased person deginated for the honor by the sitting President could truly be said to be said to be lying in state.

This, I believed, had to do with the fact that, in addition to being the head of the government, the President is also the head of state. As head of government, the President's role is like that of prime ministers in other countries. But, as head of state, our Presidents, like Queen Elizabeth in England, are also symbols of our national sovereignty. (Unlike the queen, of course, the President is an elected and temporary symbol of the American state.)

Because of all of this, I thought it better to speak of Mr. Gillmor's body lying in repose.

A Wikipedia article on state funerals seems to buttress my view of things, when it states:
In the United States, state funerals are granted by law to Presidents-elect, sitting and former, and may be granted to other individuals as designated by the sitting president.
The author of this piece could be misinformed, of course. Wikipedia isn't authoritative, after all.

I may or may not have been right in my assumptions about the two terms, lying in state and lying in repose. A 2005 article about the distinctions, appearing in Slate, has both clarified and confused my thinking. Written shortly after the funeral for the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the article notes:
Visitors filed past the body of U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist in Washington this week.
On Tuesday, both the president and the first lady viewed the casket, which sat atop the Lincoln catafalque in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Though some news organizations described Rehnquist as "lying in state," most called it "lying in repose." Is there a difference?

Only in Washington. Funeral directors throughout the country use the phrases interchangeably: A body that's put out for public viewing could be described as lying "in state" or "in repose." When Pope John Paul II passed away in April, the presentation of his body at St. Peter's Basilica was described both ways in the news media. But when you're talking about official U.S. government funerals, "lying in state" has a special meaning: You're only lying in state in the formal sense when your body is in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington.
But to say that a body is only lying in state if it's in the US Capitol shoots my definition to pieces. The Capitol, after all, is the seat of the legislative branch, not the executive. But even with this definition, one couldn't speak of Representative Gilmor's body reposed at the State House in Columbus as lying in state.

The Slate article goes on to assert:
The distinction between "repose" and "state" got its first widespread attention during the state funeral of Ronald Reagan last year. Reagan's body, like those of many presidents before him, was put out for viewing in multiple places. First, his remains spent two days on display at the Reagan Library in California. Then they were sent across the country to the Capitol Building. (Only 10 presidents have lain in state; many others have lain in repose at the White House.) Those involved with the ceremony made sure the media had the terms right: Reagan was "in repose" on the West Coast and "in state" in Washington.
This came as news to me. Speaking personally, I didn't remember anything having been made of the "in state" and "in repose" distinction during the Reagan funeral. My first memories of being educated on the supposed differences between the two terms goes back to 1963 and to arrangements surrounding the death of President Kennedy.

The long and short of it is that the Slate piece asserts that there really is no difference between the two terms, putting a lot of stock in the fact that funeral directors use them interchangeably. This also came as news to me. As a pastor, I've done many funerals since 1984. Funeral directors and others I know speak of the time when caskets--opened or closed--are on display and people can pay their respects not as lying in state or lying in repose, but as visitation. (Some laypeople still use the increasingly passe, layout, to describe a visitation.)

But, even accepting the Slate piece's assertion that funeral directors are behind what official Washington regards as a misuse of the term, lying in state, should their usage now be deemed authoritative?

My guess is that the widespread adoption of the term "lying in state," applied to pop stars like James Brown and Supreme Court justices like Rehnquist, goes back to my generation's experience of John F. Kennedy's death. For days, a nation with only three television networks simulcasting the memorials, the funeral, and the burial, was riveted by the tragedy. We saw the President's casket lying in state in the Capitol. The term came to refer to the body of any person lying in a casket in a public place where people could pay their respects.

Language and terminology get misused all the time. And, while common usage often gets its way and changes the ways words and phrases are defined by dictionary editors, it doesn't mean that those who insist that some terms are intended to mean specific things are always wrong.

It seems to me that to speak of our late Presidents' bodies lying in state, whether in the Capitol, the White House, or elsewhere, is a way of acknowledging our unique Constitutional system and a great opportunity to provide civics lessons to Americans.

[For more, see here.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

[Top image: A representation of President Abraham Lincoln's body lying in state in the White House Green Room in 1865. Lower image: A photograph of President John F. Kennedy's body lying in state in the White House East Room in 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy, JFK's widow, pored over the records of the Lincoln funeral and saw to it that her husband's funeral followed the precedents established then. You can click on the links to enlarge them.]

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