The House Chamber is known as a space for discourse and debate, but it also has a more somber history. From 1820 to 1940, the Chamber served as the setting for the funerals of some sitting Members. Learn more about this tradition through four photographs from the House Collection.
The first known funeral in the House Chamber occurred on December 18, 1820, honoring Nathaniel Hazard. Hazard, a Representative from Rhode Island, died the day before. After the ceremony, he was buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., like many early Members of Congress. Starting with Hazard, 32 known funerals of sitting Members (and one sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Morrison R. Waite) took place in the House Chamber. Even as Congress relocated from the Old Hall of the House to its new Chamber in 1857, the custom persevered. Meanwhile, funerals and memorial services also occurred in the Senate Chamber and in the Capitol Rotunda, where distinguished citizens have lain in state or in honor.
Champ Clark, a Missouri Congressman and former Speaker of the House, died on March 2, 1921, two days before the close of the 66th Congress. The Los Angeles Times reported that even in his last, delirious moments, the Minority Leader imagined he was Speaker once again, muttering, “The question is on adoption of the conference report.” As the Congressional Record stated, Clark wanted the House and Senate to continue their work after his death. Honoring his wishes, both houses took only a half-hour adjournment after hearing the news. His funeral occurred on March 5, the day after the Congress ended. A photograph shows the coffin in the well of the House Floor. Flowers appear to pour down from the Speaker’s rostrum, and friends somberly filled the seats. Newspapers reported that long lines of attendees, from Cabinet members to staff in the Capitol, crowded the aisles to see Clark’s face one last time.
The following year, a photograph captured the moments after the funeral of Illinois Representative and former Minority Leader James Robert Mann. Heavily cloaked in dark flowers, the coffin remained in the empty Chamber. The Los Angeles Times noted that, “long after the last of the line had passed, two capitol guards stood at each end of the casket, as a guard of honor for the body until it was sent to Union Station for its journey to Chicago.” Mann died of pneumonia on November 30, 1922. His colleagues honored him in the House Chamber on December 3. Although some Members were interred at Congressional Cemetery, the caskets of others, including Mann, were returned to their home districts for burial accompanied by a delegation from the House. After the service, Mann’s body was sent home to Chicago by train on the Manhattan Limited. Joseph Cannon of Illinois served as an honorary pallbearer at the Illinois services.
Several House Leaders died in the mid-1930s, including Rules Committee Chairman Edward W. Pou of North Carolina. At the time of his death on April 1, 1934, Pou was the longest-serving Member of the House. The New York Times reported that on April 2, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrived 15 minutes before his ceremony began. After attendees paid their respects, a choir from St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington sang “Lead Kindly Light” and “Peace, Perfect Peace.” The United States Marine Band played a funeral march as the crowd streamed out of the House Chamber. Early the next morning, Pou’s body was transported to Smithfield, North Carolina, by train, accompanied by Speaker Henry Rainey, Majority Leader Joseph Wellington Byrns, and Minority Leader Bertrand Snell.
Four months later, Speaker Rainey died in St. Louis, and his funeral took place in Missouri. Byrns became Speaker at the start of the 74th Congress. He too died while Speaker, on June 4, 1936.
Speaker Byrns’s death “left his colleagues dumbfounded” after Capitol physician Dr. George Calver made the announcement, the New York Times reported. Stunned Members filled the Chamber, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt mourned his loyal ally. “As the Senate and House chaplains led the assemblage in prayer and newly elected Speaker [William] Bankhead and Minority Leader Snell paid heartfelt homage to the friend who had departed the President sat in silence, his eyes fastened on the flag-draped casket directly in front of him,” the Times continued. “Not once did Mr. Roosevelt raise his eyes.” Snell gave a touching eulogy for Byrns, explaining that “His conduct in the house and in committee led unerringly to the speakership. He was a real man, loved, honored and respected by his colleagues.” After the funeral, two trains left Washington for Tennessee. The first transported the Speaker’s body, along with 60 Representatives, 10 Senators, and a group of friends. Ten minutes later, a second train carried the grieving President.
The tradition of funerals in the House Chamber ended in 1940, after Speaker Bankhead’s memorial. Other mourning practices, including draping the Speaker’s chair in black after the death of a former Speaker, still take place in the Chamber.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 3rd sess. (March 2, 1921): 4329; Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1921; Boston Globe, March 6, 1921; Chicago Daily Tribune, December 3, 1922, and June 6, 1936; and New York Times, December 3, 1922, April 3, 1934, June 4, 1936, and June 6, 1936.Follow @USHouseHistory