Some insist that traditional funerals are a thing of the past. But the funeral of President George H. W. Bush showed the world otherwise.

As soon as the death of the 41st U.S. president was announced, the nation clamored for the impending funeral details. Many wanted to make plans to travel to Washington to pay their respects and honor the beloved former president.

The Funeral Ceremony

The myriad services played out in two states, with the largest gathering taking place in Washington DC. For two days, the body of President Bush, his casket draped by an American flag, lay in state in the Capitol rotunda on the same catafalque that first held the remains of President Abraham Lincoln.

Thousands waited in line for hours in the cold December weather to pass by the casket and say goodbye. Images of the events were online and all over on television. They brought to mind the black and white photos I had seen as a child of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.

Some of those images, like three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket, have remained indelibly in my memory. I wondered if similar scenes of mourning rituals would also become etched in the minds of contemporary youth looking back at the Bush funeral.

On Wednesday, a hearse took Bush’s body to the Washington National Cathedral for a religious service attended by family, friends, and dignitaries of all stripes. In a moving eulogy, George W. Bush, the 43rd President, spoke of his father’s optimism, generosity of spirit, and boundless energy.

It was his father’s early brush with death, he said, that made him vow “to live every day to the fullest.” After the service, Bush’s remains were flown to his home state of Texas.

That evening, a visitation took place at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family church, allowing those who knew him on a more personal basis, as a friend and neighbor, the opportunity to say goodbye.

The next morning, there was a second religious ceremony. Like the first, it was a mix of prayer, music, and eulogies. In his eulogy, George P. Bush, the eldest grandson, shared a more private side of his grandfather, underscoring the elder Bush’s feelings about the importance of family.

And James Baker, Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under Bush made the audience laugh when he shared that a friendly dispute with his longtime friend would often end with, “Baker, if you’re so smart, why am I President and you’re not?”

When the service ended, a train bore Bush’s body to College Station, Texas, where he would be buried next to his beloved wife, Barbara, on the grounds of the Bush library.

In a scene reminiscent of the 1865 funeral of President Abraham Lincoln, in which his body was borne by train to Springfield, Illinois, for burial, thousands lined the train route.

Incorporating the Elements of a Good Funeral

As a former United States president, Bush received a state funeral. A well-orchestrated series of funeral rituals based on tradition and blended with personal touches. In recognition of his military service, President Bush was buried in socks ornamented by airplanes flying in formation.

While the vast majority of us will not have a funeral on such a grand scale, there are elements we can all incorporate.

  • A funeral has a body present. Without a body it’s a memorial service.
  • Religion and/or spirituality play an integral role. In Bush’s case, faith was central to who he was and a source of comfort to his family during the funeral.
  • Music is a necessary element. It provides uplifting moments, as well as an opportunity for participation by the congregants. For the Bush funeral, a meaningful mix of religious, secular, and patriotic melodies were carefully chosen.
  • Photographs evoke happy memories and tell a story. They can be easily incorporated into photo montages and videos. Framed photos, too, can adorn a reposing room.
  • Meaningful eulogies by family and longtime friends help to capture the essence of the deceased, and also allow us to learn something we may not have known.
  • Personalization can take many forms: favorite items arrayed around the room; a floral piece depicting the deceased’s occupation, or favorite pastime; wearing the deceased’s favorite color to the service; a special memento given to mourners, and more.

The Takeaway

The extensive coverage and viewership associated with the Bush funeral is ample evidence that funerals matter and continue to serve an important role in society. They bear witness to a life lived in a way that other dispositions would have trouble matching.

In a day and age when many see funerals as something to be “gotten over with” quickly and without ceremony, the words of 19th Century British Statesman Sir William Ewart Gladstone continue to hold true:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

What is your opinion of funerals and funeral ceremonies? What did you think of President Bush’s service? Do you think it’s too much to go to such lengths after a person leaves this world? Or do you support the idea that it’s important to care for a nation’s deceased? Please share your thoughts below.

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