The funeral of President George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral brought back a flood of memories.
In 2004, I had just left my job as media relations manager of Washington National Cathedral when President Ronald Reagan passed away. I heard the news from CNN. Not by watching the network, but by a CNN producer calling my cell phone to ask about funeral plans. I told the producer, who I had worked with on past Cathedral events of national importance (the September 11 visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Washington D.C. prayer and remembrance service for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia) that I would make a few calls and get back to her.
I called my former boss, the Cathedral Director of Communications, Greg Rixon. He provided the information to relay back to CNN and then said, “Welcome back.”
A few months earlier, on my last day at the Cathedral, Greg pulled me aside and said, “Just because you are leaving doesn’t get you out of all the fun.” It was common knowledge that several high-profile individuals, whose funerals were slated for the Cathedral, were not doing well, including President Reagan.
In the six months prior to me leaving, I was part of a group that had re-worked the Cathedral’s media relations plan for state funerals. At the time, George W. Bush was president, which means the family of the deceased could include a sitting president. Also, the original plans were developed pre-Sept. 11. New security protocols needed to be taken into consideration.
President Reagan died on a Sunday, and on Monday morning I was back at the Cathedral preparing for the first presidential state funeral at Washington National Cathedral since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in 1969.
When it was over—four days later—I was exhausted, craved sleep, had more than 30 un-listened to messages on my cell phone, and a new set of skills and knowledge that most media relations professionals would give their right arm to have.
Over the last couple of weeks, leading up to and since President Bush’s funeral, I have received many questions about this experience. Because for every person who asks a question, there are usually many who want to know, but have not asked, I thought it would be a nice gesture to provide the following Q & A.
My hope is that you find it interesting.
What is a state funeral?
A state funeral is a publicly funded funeral, and is only available to current or former presidents, presidents-elects, and others designated by the President.
Who is responsible for state funerals and why are they held at Washington National Cathedral?
The Military District of Washington (MDW), a command within the U.S. Army, has oversight of official state funerals. Starting with protocols and traditions established from past presidential funerals, MDW works with the family to produce each aspect of the process, including if and where the body lays in repose, the official state funeral, and the burial ceremony. MDW uses Washington National Cathedral, the sixth largest cathedral in the world, because of its size, grandeur, and location (Washington D.C.).
Why is Washington National Cathedral an Episcopal Church?
The people who built and own the Cathedral are Episcopalian. The idea for a spiritual space for special occasions goes back to when Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the nation’s capital at the behest of President George Washington. The plan included a “a great church for national purposes.” With the separation of church and state, this idea was never acted upon.
At the end of the 19th century a group of leading Washington D.C. citizens, who were Episcopalian, went about the task of building a Cathedral that could be used as a place for the nation to come together in times of need. In 1893 Congress granted a charter for the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to build the Cathedral.
What did you do at the Cathedral?
I was Manager of Media Relations. Along with being a place of worship (it serves as the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington) and as a sacred space where the country gathers during moments of national significance, it is a tourist destination, a venue for concerts and cultural events, home to a retail store, and a leading voice for inter-faith dialog and understanding. My job was to work with the Washington D.C., national, and religious media to create awareness of the many aspects of the Cathedral.
What did you do for Reagan’s Funeral?
Working with a civilian employee from the Military District of Washington, I was responsible for selecting who received press passes to attend the ceremony. I was also responsible for the bull-pen of temporary television studios assembled outside the Cathedral. Every American network and several foreign networks had sets on the Cathedral grounds. The networks anchored their coverage of the funeral from this location.
What was the most memorable moment?
Several months after the funeral I received a note from Nancy Reagan thanking me for my service. Also, I remember the help I received from an American Red Cross volunteer the morning of the funeral. I had slept in my old office that night. I got up and went right to work without even having a cup of coffee. The volunteer was walking around the media area passing out coffee, juice and snacks to those, such as myself, who were working and did not have time to eat. Without the Red Cross, I would have gone about 20 hours without eating or drinking.