[Washington Window] When Bishop John Bryson Chane received word of the death of Ronald Wilson Reagan, he knew the Diocese of Washington was in for a whirlwind week.
That phone call, on the afternoon of June 5, set in motion a long-rehearsed plan that culminated six days later in a state funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
Plans for a state funeral have been in place for more than five years, but had been stepped up in recent months, said Jim Branham, director of facilities for the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation. About 20 key staff members from the foundation, the cathedral and the diocese have met regularly with representatives from outside agencies to ensure that when the day came, they would be prepared, he said.
“We really spent the last 18 months getting really serious about contingency plans,” said Stephen T. Rippe, the foundation’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “When we got the word that the president had died, we knew what we were doing.”
Even with years of planning, a state funeral attended by royalty, celebrities, government and military officials, foreign dignitaries, heads of state and all living ex-presidents requires detailed coordination among numerous agencies.
Invitations must be issued, seating plans and protocols worked out, flowers and programs printed and arranged, grounds groomed, media attended to, security and cameras put in place, music and liturgy selected and military pageantry rehearsed.
“Not only are we dealing with multiple staff on the close, but we’re dealing with multiple jurisdictions off the close,” Rippe said. These include the Metropolitan Police Department, the White House, the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, the Secret Service and others. And, of course, there were the wishes of the Reagan family.
“It is still a family funeral,” said Susie Spaulding, events logistics manager for the cathedral. “We struggle with how do you provide a family funeral and deal with getting thousands of people onto the close. It’s a logistical event and a challenge.”
And with less than a week to have everything in place, time is of the essence.
Spaulding and other key staff members came in at 8 a.m. on Sunday to begin work on the funeral preparations. A Crisis Management Team set up a command center in the board room at Episcopal Church House, and coordinated most of the logistical details from there. Another team coordinated security from the basement conference room.
One of the team’s first tasks was deciding when to have the funeral.
“Based on our plan, we needed to make a date and a time,” Rippe said. The Reagan family had requested a service at 11:30 a.m. June 11, and a St. Andrew’s Episcopal School graduation and a wedding rehearsal were cancelled to accommodate their wishes.
The U.S. Army Military District of Washington “owns” the funeral plan and is responsible for coordinating all ceremonies and services surrounding a state funeral, Spaulding said. It also acts as an agent for the family.
“The basic framework is still the state funeral that was used by Abraham Lincoln, and every state funeral that has taken place since then has used the same basic format,” she said. The plan is altered to take into account family wishes.
“What we do with [The U.S. Army Military District of Washington] is we want to ensure that the family’s desires are captured at the service,” Spaulding said. Through its representatives, the Reagan family requested specific readings and some of the music. The rest of the liturgy was worked out by the cathedral.
While a funeral is foremost a family event, a state funeral is a public affair.
As word of Reagan’s death got out, Greg Rixon, director of public affairs for the cathedral, said his phone began to ring. Over the rest of the weekend, he fielded calls from the media, conducted interviews and set up daily press conferences with Bishop Chane, the cathedral’s vicar, Bishop Theodore Eastman, and other senior staff.
“Starting Monday, it was almost non-stop,” he said. “We found that with all of the activity out in California early in the week, the press in Washington had lots of time to fill. We had lots of requests for interviews and filming about preparations we were making, security arrangements and man-on-the-street interviews. My folks and I were very busy trying to accommodate all those needs and keep the field open for ABC.”
ABC has long been designated by the television network pool to cover state funerals at Washington National Cathedral, Rixon said.
“I’ve worked closely with ABC, coordinating all the [camera] positions so the televised portion of the funeral could easily be put in place,” he said, adding that “easy is relative.”
More than 20 cameras and “literally hundreds of lights” had to be brought in and set up at predesignated spots to “make the cathedral look that much more beautiful for television,” Rixon said. Camera angles and lights had to be adjusted and fine tuned.
Then there was the rest of the media to accommodate: The south transept balcony, the area designated for press, has a maximum seating capacity of 95, Rixon said.
“By the end of the day on Monday, the Military District of Washington had already received more than 2,000 individual requests for credentials,” he said. “By the end of the week – even though they had cut it off – they had 4,000.”
More than 22 television outlets – national and international – set up cameras on the west lawn outside the cathedral, and “I don’t even begin to know how many other agencies – news wires, photo wires – were outside,” Rixon said. “In the end there were certainly hundreds that were served there.”
While the media set up shop on the west lawn, Spaulding and her team were inside the cathedral working on seating arrangements until the doors opened at 8:30 a.m. Friday to the 3,700 invited guests.
“They were getting RSVPs right up until the last minute,” she said, adding that a last-minute response from England’s Prince Charles – who also requested a pillow for a back injury – led to frantic revisions of the seating plan.
“We had to be flexible and nimble so we could change things on the fly,” Rixon said.
Escorts from government agencies paired with cathedral ushers ensured the guests were shown to their designated seats on time – but getting them to sit down proved more of a challenge than planners had anticipated.
While photographers crushed into the corner of the south transept balcony that offered the best view, former presidents and heads of state held court in the crossing below.
“Timing was a very, very critical issue for us,” Spaulding said, explaining that the hearse was scheduled to arrive at the cathedral’s front steps at exactly 11:15 a.m., while at 11 a.m. the ambience was more cocktail party than funeral.
“I walked up and down the center aisle at least three times,” she said, urging people to take their seats. As tension rose to an almost palpable pitch among the ushers and the back slapping and chatter continued unabated, assistant verger Larry Keller stepped up to the pulpit and made an unscheduled announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please take your seats.”
When the Reagan family arrived – at 11:15 a.m. precisely – solemn silence had fallen along with the rain. And from the minute Bishop Chane received the body until the casket left the cathedral to a 40-strike toll of bells, the service went without a visible misstep.
“I think it went off really well, but we also have a lot of lessons and noticed some refinements we need to make for the next one,” Branham said, adding that President George W. Bush and all the living former presidents are planning their funerals here.
“I thought the teamwork was really exceptional,” said Rippe, adding that after the funeral, cathedral, foundation and diocesan staff took part in a series of reviews with external agencies. “Everyone came together –spirits were good and morale was high.”
“I think the nation saw the cathedral at its best,” Rixon said. “Bishop Chane and Bishop Eastman were seen by many people in their roles as Bishop of Washington and Vicar of the Cathedral…we’re pleased in that regard that we’ve set a high standard and that it will continue to be the standard in the future.”