“…at that time it was quite a formal thing, it was almost like going to church. You had your chaplain there, they pulled in a piano on the floor and they had a good pianist, and they had a soloist to sing, and then the different senators would eulogize the passing of the senators who had gone to their Great Beyond.”
Interviewed in 1979, former Senate Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick discusses how funeral ceremonies in the Senate have changed over the years.
RITCHIE: There's a lot of ceremony in the Senate in many ways, things like the swearing in of senators, there's the counting of the electoral ballots, there are all of the things they go through on a regular basis. There are others that happen unexpectedly, and one of them is funerals in the Senate. Since I've been here there have been a few, and I've noted some confusion at times as to what has to be done, and when. You were involved in helping to set up some of the state funerals, both in the Rotunda and in the Senate chamber.
RIDDICK: There have been one or two in the Senate chamber since I've been working at the desk, but I don't think I participated in those determinations for the Senate chamber ceremonies and funeral services because Mr. Watkins was still parliamentarian. There has been some well-established ceremonial practice, but it has varied from time to time. I remember when I first came up to observe procedures to write my doctor's dissertation on political and parliamentary procedure in the House of Representatives, I attended a service in the Senate chamber, and this service was to memorialize senators who had died since the last services of that nature. And at that time it was quite a formal thing, it was almost like going to church. You had your chaplain there, they pulled in a piano on the floor and they had a good pianist, and they had a soloist to sing, and then the different senators would eulogize the passing of the senators who had gone to their Great Beyond. They made quite an affair of it, and these speeches had been prepared at great length (some of them didn't speak as long as others, of course), and all of the senators had prepared their remarks, instead of just spontaneously jumping up and making comments when they hear of the death of somebody. But that has more-or-less passed; for the last ten or fifteen years I've seen no such memorial services. It seems that the few that we have had were held in the Rotunda.
RITCHIE: I know that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy's funeral was in the chamber.
RIDDICK: In the Senate chamber, but Mr. Watkins was still around, and he had experienced a number of them, so he managed that.
RITCHIE: Any widow can request a Senate funeral, can't she?
RIDDICK: They give deference. They can request it, but sometimes the Senate takes it in its own hands to do it. Of course, they would consult the widow before doing it.
RITCHIE: When they have a funeral in the chamber, I've noticed that they don't go on the Record.
RIDDICK: It's not a Senate session, that's right. It's an assembly for a said purpose.
RITCHIE: So they just adjourn and the room is used for other purposes.
RIDDICK: That's right. They call the Senate to order for that purpose only. They might adopt a resolution to authorize the funeral service to be held at such-and-such a date, and that the Senate at that time would assemble for that purpose.
RITCHIE: There is also the Rotunda funeral. How does the ceremony in the Rotunda differ from the ceremony in the chamber?
RIDDICK: Well, I don't know as there's too much difference. The point is, as this little brochure, which I think is worthwhile to mention, "Those Who Have Lain In State In The Rotunda," states it's a problem of who's entitled to the use of the Rotunda. The Rotunda, being in the center of the Capitol, is part of both the House and the Senate. This little preface that the Architect of the Capitol prepared on the number of services held in the Rotunda, has a lead-off to this effect:
A grateful nation has often paid tribute to citizens of eminence at the time of death by honoring their remains in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. In the 140 years since the Rotunda was completed, there have been twenty-four such state occasions. There is no law, written rule, or regulation governing the matter of who may lie in state in the Rotunda. Use of the Rotunda is controlled generally by concurrent action of the House and Senate, however the Rotunda has been used without full concurrence of both houses, especially during the adjournment or recess. The wishes of the family of a great individual are also respected by Congress.
Now there are some variations from this, of course. They say, "at the time of their death."
L'Enfant's body had been interred at Digg's farm in Prince George's County, Maryland. He died in 1825, but the Rotunda was used for his reinterment in 1909. So, they haven't all occurred at the time of the death. Likewise, the unknown soldiers, they might have been killed months before they were brought over here, and the ceremonies occurred in the Rotunda. But anyhow, the main services were held on the occasion of the death. There have been twenty-four ceremonies in the Rotunda, of the twenty-four, the first resolution used was in the case of L'Enfant in 1909. Up until that time they had already had eight services without the use of resolutions and after that there were seven other occasions on which no resolution was used; in nine cases resolutions were used. If Congress is not in session you can't adopt a resolution, and I think that was the case in those since the 1909 event in which resolutions were not used. So it doesn't mean that since 1909 they haven't adopted a resolution each time when the Congress was in session.
RITCHIE: Presumably, there are only types of people who are entitled to Rotunda funerals, and usually they are presidents, vice presidents, or very distinguished senators like Robert Taft. When something like this occurs, and it usually occurs unexpectedly, what is the triggering mechanism, what procedures are followed, and do the Senate and House organize the proceedings? Is it automatic?
RIDDICK: No, it's not automatic. For example, in the case of Senator Taft there were several meetings held to decide if they were going to hold a funeral in the Senate or the Rotunda. After consultation with Senator Robert Taft's son and all, I had suggested to the majority leader that they were very concerned to get his body to lie in state. It was agreed upon, and the Senate adopted a resolution to that effect, and invited the House. We only adopted a Senate resolution, but in that resolution the House was invited to participate in the ceremony. The same was true in the case of Senator [Everett] Dirksen. They haven't had many that were for senators, I believe Charles Sumner was the only other senator before Mr. Taft who had lain in state in the Rotunda. But since then they had funerals for Senators Taft, Dirksen, and [Hubert] Humphrey. Of recent, they had the Unknown Soldiers, President Kennedy, General MacArthur, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and an unusual one, J. Edgar Hoover in 1972.
RITCHIE: How did Hoover get in there?
RIDDICK: I just don't know who instigated that. I wasn't in on that at all. In fact, there was no meeting held. It could have well come from the House side. I don't know. Then of course, there was a funeral for President Lyndon Johnson, which was pursuant to a House Concurrent Resolution, and one for Senator Hubert Humphrey. He died while he was a Senator, but he had been vice president. So they have had very few for those who had just been senators only.
RITCHIE: So, in a sense, the Rotunda ceremony has pretty well replaced the Senate chamber ceremonies?
RIDDICK: Well, not necessarily, because Senator [Richard] Russell had become a very prominent senator and they did not ask that his body lie in state, and his ceremony was a peculiar situation. The Senate adopted a resolution for the funeral services authorizing all the Senate to go to the funeral down in Georgia. His funeral was to be held at Winder, and we were to alight at the air force base near by and proceed to the funeral services in a body. But that was an unbearable day. It was the foggiest day they had had in ages down there, and I'm told that our plane got as low as eleven feet to the ground and could not see the ground sufficient to land, because you didn't know what you'd run into. You could see the ground, but you couldn't see anywhere far enough to be sure that you were landing both planes safely.
All of the senators were on two planes. There was an agreement, some kind of an agreement, or at least an assertion by Mr. [Senator Mike] Mansfield that that was never going to occur again; that they were never going to allow all the senators under such circumstances to go in two planes for a funeral, for fear that the whole Senate would be wiped out. Both planes tried, both planes were heavily loaded, both planes tried two or three times, circling, trying to come down and alight. It was on the military air force base. I guess there was sufficient protection with radar and all, but the danger involved was unbelievable. So finally, when they tried the last round and couldn't see well enough to land, they took off and landed in Charleston, South Carolina, where it was clear, and held the funeral services by radio and television from the Naval Air Base in Charleston. It was an unusual situation. And I'll tell you, if you've ever seen an excited young fella, the high muckety-muck of the base was off that day and some lieutenant was left in charge, and he put that base under such guard as you've ever seen. The vice president sent for me, he was flying in Air Force Two, and he wanted to ask me a few questions, and I started over and by golly the military put guns right in my chest and said, "Where are you going?" Checking me out; I mean they really were on the alert that day. I'll bet that lieutenant was glad when those planes left that base!
RITCHIE: On the overall, how important is ceremony in general to the Senate? Is it something that the senators themselves consider very important, or is it sort of a necessary nuisance that they have to go through?
RIDDICK: Well, I think the ceremony for funerals, except for the few that have lain in state, is sort of dying off. I think that might have been true for the years gone by, in other words, we've had ups and downs. Right at the moment, the latest thing we had was sending everybody who wanted to go to attend the funeral of Senator [James] Allen in Alabama. There was quite a crowd there. But unless it was somebody that has gained quite a bit of recognition in the Senate as in the above case and in the case of Mr. [Vice President Nelson] Rockefeller's funeral recently (the actual funeral was just a family funeral but they had a ceremony a few days later and all of the senators were permitted to go up to New York for that ceremony in his behalf). With these few exceptions, little emphasis is placed on such ceremonies. I guess it might have been that way always. Anyway, the Senate does not set aside days anymore for formal ceremony in the chamber as they used to. A few comments are made at the time of the death, and they hold a day for senators to make comments in the Record, but it's not a memorial service like they used to hold. The senator might not even make the statement on the floor, he might just submit it and have it put in the Record. It's just not quite as formal as it used to be.