In mid-February, the Carter Center announced that former President Jimmy Carter had elected to enter hospice care. His family has yet to publicly share his funeral plans, although they have confirmed some details to reporters.
The public observance of Carter’s passing will be an opportunity reflect the virtues and character that marked his post-presidential life—and perhaps also to move away from what has become recent tradition for honoring presidents. His commemoration can remind Americans what the presidency is supposed to be, reaffirm republican values, and honor his accomplishments and his life of humble public service.
Carter spent most of his life as a model for public service. He lived simply, he treated other humans with kindness, and he devoted his days to bettering human existence. He has embodied the definition of a citizen former president. His funeral can emphasize these qualities by demonstrating how presidents should be mourned in a republic like the United States.
On December 14, 1799, George Washington became the first former president to pass away. He too had requested a simple family funeral. Washington left no record to explain his thinking, but the choice was consistent with his commitment to republican leadership. After he stepped down from office, Washington insisted that he was just like any other citizen. He expected his fellow citizens to respect the office of the presidency but also to mourn him just like anyone else.
Shortly after Washington’s death, his plans began to go awry, as friends, neighbors, militia groups, and civic organizations arrived at Mount Vernon, demanding to pay their respects and participate in the funeral procession. Quickly, the day became a much bigger affair than Washington wanted or expected.
Across the country, communities staged over 400 mock funerals, complete with empty caskets and eulogies. The congressional ceremony held in Philadelphia twelve days after Washington’s death was, in essence, the first presidential state funeral. An empty casket, draped in black cloth, lay on the floor of the House of Representatives chambers, flanked by a portrait of the first president, a military hat, and a ceremonial sword. The funeral procession that followed, attended by government officials, members of Congress, and tens of thousands of citizens, ended at the German Lutheran Church, the largest church in the city. After an Episcopal service, Light Horse Harry Lee delivered the eulogy famously calling Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Plans to remove Washington’s body from Mount Vernon and reinter it under a monument in the new capital city or in a crypt under the Capitol were never carried out.
Large state funerals for presidents emerged as a political norm when Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy were laid to rest with state funerals, complete with cross-country transportation, media coverage, and weeks of mourning—befitting their deaths while in office (and the nature of their deaths, in the case of Lincoln and Kennedy).