Today, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) will enter the Senate chamber one last time. In doing so, he will join a long tradition of Members who have lain in repose on the Senate floor before traveling to their final resting place.
While the practice of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda is more widely known, lying in repose on the Senate floor is actually more common. In total, 45 people have lain in repose on the Senate floor, according to the Senate Historical Office, compared with 31 who have lain in the Rotunda.
The first to lie in repose in the Senate chamber was Founding Father George Clinton in April 1812. While Clinton never served in Congress, he was the first governor of New York and vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He is the only person who lay in repose in the chamber but did not serve in the Senate.
The practice was fairly common in the 19th century and even into the early years of the 20th century. While it was a way of honoring the dead, it was also extremely practical.
“Members very often had funerals in the Capitol and were buried in local ceremonies,” Associate Senate Historian Betty Koed explains. “It was hard to transport bodies in those days. They didn’t have refrigeration for one thing, so up until the mid-20th century the transportation issues were really key.”
The last Senator to lie in repose in the chamber was Republican William Langer of North Dakota, who died in November 1959. Members who elect to lie in the chamber rather than the Rotunda often do so because they feel a special connection to the legislative body, according to the Senate Historical Office.
“Usually these ceremonies are done according to the wishes of the family,” Koed says.
Typically the casket is placed in the well of the Senate, directly in front of the presiding officer’s desk. In many cases, the casket is surrounded by flowers. Byrd’s casket will be brought into the chamber by an honor guard and placed on the catafalque first used during Abraham Lincoln’s funeral proceedings in 1865. Members and those who usually have floor privileges will be able to enter the chamber to pay their respects, while others may view the casket from the gallery.
While a joint resolution is required to lie in the Rotunda, arrangements to lie in the chamber go through the Sergeant-at-Arms, who works with Senate leadership to make preparations.
“Typically, to use the Rotunda for anything it requires a joint resolution between the House and Senate because it’s sort of the middle ground,” Koed says.
Similar memorial practices occur in the House. In total, 31 funerals have taken place in the chamber, the most recent in 1940 when Speaker William Bankhead (D-Ala.) died, according to the Office of the Clerk of the House.
For many years, there was a specific protocol regarding the death of a Member. The news was immediately announced on the House floor and followed by a resolution regarding the funeral. A second resolution was passed that required Members of the body to wear black armbands for 30 days. The House would then host the funeral.
But as Congress grew, so did the cost of hosting funerals. In 1883, the House agreed to set a spending limit of $1,000 per funeral.
The Capitol isn’t the only place where people can lie in repose. Justice Thurgood Marshall lay in repose in the Supreme Court, while Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who died in a 1996 plane crash in Croatia, lay in the Department of Commerce.
“As far as I know, it can be done in any official government building although it is most common in Capitol buildings,” Koed says.