Though typically bustling with the business of legislation, there are times when Congress pauses to reflect, grieve, and memorialize the passing of national figures. Conscious of its place on the national stage, Congress occasionally offers the Capitol Rotunda or House Chamber as a place for the public to mourn and celebrate the lives of dedicated and notable citizens.
This Edition for Educators sheds light on the ways the U.S. House of Representatives mourns and remembers.
Since Henry Clay in 1852, the U.S. Capitol Rotunda has been used as a place to pay tribute to the Nation’s most distinguished citizens. Made available for public viewing in the Capitol, people who have “lain in state” traditionally have been American statesmen and military leaders, including 12 U.S. Presidents.Funerals in the House Chamber
Under the current House Rule IV, the House Chamber may only be used for legislative functions, conference meetings, and caucus meetings unless the House agrees to take part in a ceremony. Earlier in House history, however, the Chamber also served as a place to memorialize Representatives who died in office.
The First House Chamber Funeral
On December 18, 1820, the first known funeral in the House Chamber occurred. Representative Nathaniel Hazard of Rhode Island died the day before in Washington, DC. On the morning of the 18th, Representative Samuel Eddy of Rhode Island announced the death to the full House. The House approved several resolutions relating to funeral attendance by Members and appointed a committee of seven to tend to the funeral arrangements.The Honoring of Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania
When Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens died on August 11, 1868, crowds of mourners, including colleagues such as Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, came to his Washington, DC, home to pay their respects. A regiment of soldiers escorted Stevens’s body to the Capitol Rotunda to lay in state. Visitors filed past throughout the day on August 13 and into the next morning. After the viewing, a short funeral took place in the Rotunda and Stevens’s body was transported to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for burial.The Memorial of the Challenger
On January 28, 1986, the House of Representatives memorialized the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger who perished when the craft exploded shortly after launch that morning. Out of respect to the Challenger crew and their families, the House adjourned for two hours before promptly passing a resolution expressing sorrow for the tragedy and remembering the astronauts onboard the shuttle. President Ronald Reagan also postponed the State of the Union Address, which he had been scheduled to deliver that evening.The Honoring of Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks
On October 30 and 31, 2005, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was honored in the U.S. Capitol. In 1955, Parks, an African-American seamstress, galvanized the U.S. civil rights movement by performing an act of civil disobedience in refusing to yield her seat to a white man and move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after her death, she became the first woman and the second Black American to lie in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. With bipartisan support, the resolution to honor the civil rights icon passed easily. A statue of Rose Parks was placed in Statuary Hall in 2013.
George Andrews, a former House Page and the son of former Representatives George and Elizabeth Andrews of Alabama, recalled in his oral history interview the 1963 state funeral of President John F. Kennedy.
Dolly Seelmeyer, the first woman photographer for the U.S. House of Representatives, discussed taking a photo of the flag at half-staff for the family of Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts as rain poured upon a Capitol in mourning.
Arva Marie Johnson joined the Capitol Police force as the first African-American female officer in 1974 and went on to serve 32 years on Capitol Hill. In her oral history, she remembers the tragic shooting deaths of two of her fellow officers. Within a few days of the tragedy, the House and Senate authorized a concurrent resolution for a memorial service for the officers to “lie in honor” in the Capitol Rotunda. Officer Jacob Chestnut Jr. and Detective John Gibson were buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.
A Celebration of the Life of The Honorable Robert T. Matsui Program
As a child, Representative Robert Matsui of California was placed in an internment camp by the United States government. He later served in the House for more than two decades. In what has become common practice for departed colleagues, Matsui was eulogized in a ceremony that followed his death in office in 2005. The memorial service’s program listed colleagues from both sides of the aisle who admired his career. Often, these eulogies are collected and published alongside articles and obituaries inserted into the Congressional Record.John Quincy Adams Memorial Ribbon
John Quincy Adams, the House’s “Old Man Eloquent,” died in the Speaker’s office, just steps from the House Chamber, in 1848. The former President had become an ardent abolitionist during his 16 years in the House, and Americans throughout the northern states mourned him widely. This memorial ribbon was sold in New York, far from Adams’ funeral in the U.S. Capitol.Funeral Services for the Late Champ Clark
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 (1919–1921). Members honored Clark with a funeral in the House Chamber, held on March 5. With his coffin present in the well of the House Floor, flowers spilled over the Speaker’s rostrum, and Clark’s friends and colleagues gathered to pay their respects.
After the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Rosemary Ryan of Kansas City, Kansas, wrote this letter to the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) expressing her desire for King’s January 15 birthday to be made a national holiday.Abernathy led a march on Washington to deliver the signature petitions, including Rosemary Ryan's, to Congress, where they became part of the records of the House Judiciary Committee.
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.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory