Congressional leadership announced last week that it would commemorate the life of evangelist Billy Graham by having him lie in honor this Wednesday, a rare accolade for any American and an official embrace of the religious leader from the halls of government.
Graham will be only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor, following civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 and two slain Capitol Police officers in 1998, the Architect of the Capitol’s records say.
The practice is similar to lying in state, where the casket of a government or military official is honored with brief placement in a government building. Former presidents, as well as some lawmakers and other officials, have lain in state at the Capitol Rotunda, and Supreme Court justices have lain in repose at the Supreme Court building, a tradition that continued with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia two years ago.
Members of both parties responded to the news of Graham’s death with kind words, and recollections of the evangelist’s outsize role in American life, including by noting that he was a counselor to US presidents, spanning decades.
The Capitol itself is no stranger to religious ceremony or official recognition of religious leaders. The House and Senate have chaplains and open their sessions with prayers.
Criticism of honoring Graham has been somewhat muted, with the Freedom From Religion Foundation issuing a statement calling the plan to have his body lie in honor inappropriate and citing, among other things, his comments on the Nixon tapes disparaging Jewish people, which he apologized for after they became public.
Lying in honor refers to a private citizen and has been rare historically. Officer Jacob J. Chestnut Jr. and detective John M. Gibson, who were killed by a gunman at the Capitol in 1998, became the first private citizens to lie in honor. In 2005, Parks became the first woman and second black American to be honored in this way at the Capitol Rotunda, according to the House, following a resolution from both houses of Congress.
The Architect of the Capitol notes that the first American honored by lying in state was Kentucky statesman Henry Clay and that Congress has used the Lincoln catafalque – the platform built to display President Abraham Lincoln’s casket – for those lying in state since Lincoln’s 1865 death.