Presidential Funerals

In All Thy Ways Acknowledge Him

The Funeral for the Healer of a Nation

State Funeral for President Gerald R. Ford
January 2, 2007

Ford Funeral

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Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. —Proverbs 3:5–6

He accompanied the Queen of England into the nave of Washington National Cathedral in 1976. Now, another president escorted his widow to her seat in that nave.

His greatest ambition was to be speaker of the House of Representatives. His greatest achievement was to be the healer of a nation.

Or Walk With Kings — Nor Lose The Common Touch

After the improbable journey of Gerald Rudolph Ford ended on December 26, 2006, a grateful nation bid farewell to the 38th president of the United States with solemn state ceremonies accorded only eleven of its presidents.

His church commended his soul to God with the Book of Common Prayer’s simple, elegant rite for the Burial of the Dead read for president and pauper alike. Only the presence of well-known faces in the congregation and the eulogies of the sitting and a former president of the United States, a former secretary of state, and a television anchor revealed the measure of the man being mourned. As David Frost observed after President Kennedy’s death, “Death … is not the great leveler; death reveals the eminent.”

A full complement of the diplomatic corps came together with members of Congress and the United States Supreme Court, senior military officers, the three living former presidents and first ladies, and the widow of a fourth, along with Ford’s children and twenty honorary pallbearers, for the service.

In tribute to Ford, an Eagle Scout, Boy Scouts assisted Cathedral ushers in guiding over 3,700 invited guests to their seats. Among them were editors and journalists whose investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal was more than a little responsible for Gerald Ford assuming the presidency. Seated with the family were long-time neighbors from Crown View Drive in Alexandria, Virginia, where the Fords lived before moving to the White House.

The Burial of the Dead

As the cortège left the Capitol on its way to the service, the Cathedral’s Bourdon Bell tolled 38 times in honor of the 38th president. A brisk wind swept across Walker Court in front of the Cathedral, fully unfurling the American and presidential flags, and a military band rendered musical honors and the casket was borne to the entrance of the Cathedral. The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, met the casket at the door, saying: “With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother Gerald for burial.”

Former First Lady Betty Ford never wavered as she walked slowly down the Cathedral’s long center aisle on the arm of President George W. Bush, who carefully paced his footsteps with those of the diminutive 88-year-old former dancer. Military body bearers carried the flag-draped casket down the aisle and placed it on the catafalque centered beneath soaring arches at the crossing. Between the lessons read by two of Ford’s children, the Cathedral’s Combined Choirs sang Psalm 23, arranged especially by Michael McCarthy, director of music. The Armed Forces Chorus sang two of Ford’s favorite hymns, the Navy Hymn and “O God, our help in ages past.”

The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the Cathedral, said the opening collect and the dismissal. Cathedral organists Erik Wm. Suter, Scott Hanoian, and Christopher Jacobson shared duties throughout the service and in the hour-long organ prelude that began when the Cathedral doors opened. Before the service, the Armed Forces Chorus and U.S. Marine Orchestra also sang and played American music, including Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Metropolitan Opera singer Denyce Graves provided an emotional high point when she sang the Lord’s Prayer following the homily. The preacher, the Rev. Dr. Robert Certain of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., also read the anthem in procession and pronounced the commendation. Ford’s casket was borne from the Cathedral while the congregation sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ victorious setting of “For all the saints, who from their labors rest.”

Statesman, Churchman, Family Man

“As a statesman, churchman, and family man,” Father Certain preached, “Gerald Ford was a man of deep faith and constant prayer.” During Ford’s boyhood, his mother helped him memorize Proverbs 3:5–6: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. Ford lived by these words throughout his life. When he took the presidential oath of office, his left hand rested on that passage in the Bible.

Earlier, during his quarter-century in Congress, Ford often slipped into the chapel between the House and Senate for prayer after the last roll-call vote of the day, frequently accompanied by his Democratic colleague, Albert Quie, of Minnesota. Ford and Quie met together with Melvin Laird of Wisconsin and John Rhodes of Arizona every Tuesday morning for Bible study and prayer.

A lifelong Episcopalian, Ford worshiped whenever he could at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, near his home in Alexandria. As president, he worshiped at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, and on several occasions he attended services at the Cathedral, including the Sunday he escorted Queen Elizabeth II during her Bicentennial visit to help celebrate the opening of the nave. He also worked actively for the completion of the Cathedral in 1990.

“A Great Church … for National Purposes”

Twice in the past 36 months, the Cathedral has fulfilled Major Pierre L’Enfant’s vision, in his 1791 plan for the new federal city, for a great church “intended for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgiving, [and] funeral orations.” That the Cathedral was able to do so was made possible only by the teamwork of a Cathedral staff immersed in preparations less than 48 hours after the last Christmas service. “From chair arrangers and floor polishers, to security guards and flower arrangers, to choristers and vergers, to our key leaders in every area,” Dean Lloyd wrote afterwards, “everyone pulled together to give the nation and the Ford family the kind of prayerful, moving service [President Ford’s passing] called for.”

For a man who assumed the presidency on one day’s notice and had no formal inaugural, it seems fitting that Gerald Ford’s funeral should have taken place at a time of transition between the old year and the new, between two Congresses with political control changing hands, and during major construction projects to improve public access to both the United States Capitol and Washington National Cathedral.

In remarks at the 1975 National Prayer Breakfast, President Ford said that “to be a leader, one must first be a servant.” As the cortège departed the Close after the two-hour service, a half-muffled quarter-peal of bells rang out from the Cathedral’s central tower overlooking the capital city of a nation to which Gerald R. Ford had devoted his life as a public servant.

—by Margaret Shannon. Originally published in the winter 2006 issue of Cathedral Age.

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