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Funerals and Memorial Services

The Vacant Chair.

As a relatively small and traditionally collegial body, the Senate actively mourns the death of an incumbent member. Today, thanks to improved health care, fewer senators die in office than was the case prior to the mid-1960s. Consequently, there is no longer much need for the elaborate system of Senate funeral rituals that had developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In those earlier times, several incumbent senators died each year. For senators who succumbed while Congress was in session, the Senate adjourned the following day's proceedings in that member's memory, conducted funerals or memorial services in its Chamber–with a large floral tribute resting on the deceased member's vacant desk and black crepe covering the chair–sent delegations of senators to accompany the remains back home, and authorized members to wear black armbands for 30 days. For those senators who died during an extended adjournment period, the Senate, upon reconvening, conducted a collective memorial service in its Chamber with appropriate prayers and musical tributes.

Today's Senate funeral and memorial traditions for incumbent senators reflect that earlier experience. The Senate still adjourns the day's session in memory of the deceased member, sends delegations to the funeral–with members departing from and returning to the Capitol on the same day thanks to modern high-speed transportation–and sets aside a portion of a day's schedule for memorial tributes. Such tributes appear as part of the official record of floor proceedings. Many are subsequently collected along with news obituaries and other pertinent documents to be issued as an official Senate publication. The American flag is flown at half-staff on the day of the incumbent's death and the following day.

Baker, Richard A. The New Members' Guide to Traditions of the United States Senate. (Washington, GPO, 2006. S.Pub. 109-25), 27.