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.
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.
As a general rule, you can only lie in state if you’re due a state funeral. And you’re only due a state funeral if you’re the president, the president-elect, an ex-president, or someone specially designated by the president. Unless Bush had designated Rehnquist for this honor, the best he could have hoped for was an “official funeral”—which is similar to a state funeral but without the lying in state. Rehnquist’s family turned down the official funeral, but they did allow his body to lie in repose at the Supreme Court, in accordance with long-standing tradition.
A third category emerged in 1998, when two Capitol police officers were killed defending Congress from a crazed gunman. The bodies of Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson were placed “in honor”—not in state—in the Capitol Rotunda. Due to the circumstances of their deaths, the order for the funeral came directly from Congress. The president hadn’t designated them for a state funeral, so the lawmakers resolved to have them lie in honor instead. At the memorial service, Trent Lott may have confused things further with his speech: “We’ve had presidents lie in repose here,” he said.
Explainer thanks Robert Boetticher of Service Corporation International, Jon Deitloff of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association, and Betty Koed of the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
Correction, Sept. 9, 2005:For a short time after publication, this article featured an older photograph of the justices at a coffin that included an image of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the subject of the article.