How do you mourn the leader of America? Surely, one can’t produce a definitive, catch-all answer. The average american is not even likely to be able to recall the names of every US president, usually remembering the most memorable ones from their history classes or whichever ones who served in their lifetime.
The presidency is a position that elevates one to a status of immense power and influence. Throughout American history, the president has provided leadership in the public faith; faith in the government, faith in the presidency, faith in America. In one of Robert Linder’s articles for Journal of Church and State, the president has provided leadership in the public faith throughout US history. “Sometimes he has functioned primarily as a national prophet, as did Abraham Lincoln. Occasionally he has served primarily as the nation’s pastor, as did Dwight Eisenhower. At other times he has performed primarily as the high priest of the civil religion, as did Ronald Reagan.” In prophetic civil religion, the president “assesses the nation’s actions and calls upon the people to make sacrifices in times of crisis and to repent when their behavior falls short of the national ideals.” As the national pastor, he provides spiritual inspiration to the people by affirming American core values and urging them to appropriate those values, and by comforting them in their afflictions. In the priestly role, the president makes America itself the ultimate reference point. He “leads the citizenry in affirming and celebrating the nation, and reminds them of the national mission, while at the same time glorifying and praising his political flock.” This works to further the theory on Civil Religion that America’s national identity and cultural values have run parallel to that of pan-Christian religious themes, and, when seen how some of our most recognizable leaders’ roles ended, abruptly or peacefully, our biggest show of thanks was seen in how they were mourned nationwide.
Following his assassination, the caskets containing Abraham Lincoln’s body and the body of his son Willie traveled for three weeks on the Lincoln Special funeral train in 1865. The train followed a circuitous route from D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at many cities for memorials attended by hundreds of thousands. Many others gathered along the tracks as the train passed with bands, bonfires, and hymn singing or in silent grief. Poet Walt Whitman composed When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d to eulogize him, one of four poems he wrote about Lincoln. This was considered America’s first national funeral.
In 1945, this locomotive(see below) carried Franklin D. Roosevelt’s body, placed in a flag-draped coffin and loaded onto the presidential train for the trip back to Washington. Along the route, thousands flocked to the tracks to pay their respects. After a White House funeral on April 14, Roosevelt was transported by train from Washington, D.C., to his place of birth at Hyde Park.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s body was moved to the Washington National Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel, where he lay in repose for 28 hours. He was then transported to the Capitol, where he lay in state in the Rotunda.A state funeral service was conducted at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1969. The president and First Lady, Richard and Pat Nixon, attended, as did former president Lyndon Johnson. Also among the 2,000 invited guests were U.N. Secretary General U Thant and 10 foreign heads of state and government, including President Charles de Gaulle of France, who was in the United States for the first time since the state funeral of John F. Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran.
In 2004, Ronald Reagan’s body was taken to the Kingsley and Gates Funeral Home in Santa Monica, California, where well-wishers paid tribute by laying flowers and American flags in the grass. Later, his body was transferred to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a brief family funeral, conducted by Pastor Michael Wenning, was held. Reagan’s body lay in repose in the Library lobby until June 9; over 100,000 people viewed the coffin. Two days after, Reagan’s body was flown to Washington, D.C., where he became the tenth U.S. president to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol;in thirty-four hours, 104,684 people filed past the coffin.
The nation provides quasi-religious honors to its presidents– martyrs, some might call them– with services that become a spectacle, an event. These events served not only to mourn the passing of the country’s leaders en-masse, but to mobilize the public, according to Robert Bellah’s Civil Religion in America. Overall, mourning these national pastors and priests and leaders is not just political, not just patriotic, but is a spiritual action when their lives and works are celebrated with such grand practices.