On Friday, Gen. Colin Powell’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral marked a moment of collective mourning in a deeply divided United States. Powell died on Oct. 18 at 84 from complications of covid-19, to which he was especially susceptible despite vaccination because of cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
But, probably because of his and his family’s wishes, Powell did not receive a state funeral, and his body did not lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. His service, although televised, was “private” and limited only to those invited. President Biden attended but did not speak.
This format muted some of the debates over Powell’s legacy, particularly over the second Iraq War. But it also deprived the public of a chance to come together amid deep fractures centered around covid and debates over racism in America. When marked collectively, the passing of public figures has long allowed Americans to ponder their shared national values.
Powell — the son of poor Jamaican immigrants who rose to become a four-star general in the U.S. Army, the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as becoming the first Black Secretary of State under George W. Bush — is exactly the kind of figure to receive a ceremonial public funeral in the United States: a respected military leader and leading statesman with bonds across party lines.
National public mourning ceremonies date to Americans holding funeral processions all over the country after George Washington’s death in 1799. Washington was not, as Congress hoped, buried beneath the U.S. Capitol, but the spontaneous mourning ceremonies, church services and commemorations (including pamphlets, embroidery and monuments) provided Americans an opportunity to join together in his honor. In the midst of the country’s first era of rancorous partisan division, mourning the nation’s first president struck a common note of patriotism, even among many who had bitterly opposed Washington himself as president and who reviled John Adams, his successor.
Beginning with Sen. Henry Clay in 1852, presidents, members of Congress and Cabinet leaders periodically have lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Since 1865, many of those accorded this honor have lain atop a catafalque (platform) used to hold the coffin of Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol. After Lincoln lay in state, his body was transported to Illinois for burial, attended by throngs of public mourners and days of funeral rituals along the route.
Such public funerals are designed to celebrate both the dead and the American nation itself, and funerals have provided different Americans with a chance to imagine their connections to one another. No public funeral ever achieves perfect unity, but they all provide opportunities to imagine what American unity could look like, even when the visions differ.