Colin Powell’s funeral was a missed opportunity for the country

The following is a guest blog post by Sarah J. Purcell, author of Spectacle of Grief: Public Funerals and Memory in the Civil War Era, reposted from the Washington Post.

This illuminating book examines how the public funerals of major figures from the Civil War era shaped public memories of the war and allowed a diverse set of people to contribute to changing American national identities. These funerals featured lengthy processions that sometimes crossed multiple state lines, burial ceremonies open to the public, and other cultural productions of commemoration such as oration and song. As Sarah J. Purcell reveals, Americans’ participation in these funeral rites led to contemplation and contestation over the political and social meanings of the war and the roles played by the honored dead. Public mourning for military heroes, reformers, and politicians distilled political and social anxieties as the country coped with the aftermath of mass death and casualties. 

Purcell shows how large-scale funerals for figures such as Henry Clay and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson set patterns for mourning culture and Civil War commemoration; after 1865, public funerals for figures such as Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and Winnie Davis elaborated on these patterns and fostered public debate about the meanings of the war, Reconstruction, race, and gender.

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.

For example, in 1874, when Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), a most hated enemy of slaveholding Southerners, died in office, he was surprisingly eulogized by Sen. Lucius Q.C. Lamar (D), a former Confederate from Mississippi, who used the occasion to try to dramatize a vision of sectional reconciliation. The former abolitionist Frederick Douglass also eulogized Sumner, but he argued that Sumner’s work for Black equality must continue even if it risked keeping some White southerners alienated.

When Douglass died in 1895, members of Congress moved to have his body honored in the Rotunda, but the speaker of the House and Southern senators blocked the motions, and Douglass’s huge Washington funeral took place at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church instead. The refusal to have Douglass lie in state pointed to how official public mourning rituals were reserved for White men in the 19th century.

During the 20th century, public funerals attracted more press coverage, even as they retained some remarkably stable elements: mixing somber, stylized religious services, public veneration of the body and eulogies that, in keeping with traditions stretching back to ancient Rome, often emphasized the virtues of the deceased and glided over their divisive qualities. Flags, black cloth, Lincoln’s catafalque and other somber objects have provided symbolic symmetry at national funerals for figures as diverse as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and civil rights titan Rosa Parks. The continuity in forms of state funerals helped link each occasion symbolically to the preceding rituals and to emphasize the collective nature of the national grief.

Significantly, there has been one change in recent decades: These rituals have become more inclusive. Before 1998, no Black American had their remains publicly honored at the U.S. Capitol. That changed when Capitol Police Officer Jacob Joseph Chestnut, killed in the line of duty, received the honor. Subsequently, Parks and two members of Congress, Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) received similar commemorations.

But our collective mourning process also extends beyond Washington. Indeed, the United States prides itself on spontaneous expressions of public grief that are an outpouring of love from a democratic public. In Washington D.C., and across the nation, Americans periodically line the streets to wave flags and signs in support of their deceased heroes as their bodies are transported for burial.

Often these mourners aim to harness the death of a fallen leader to perpetuate or advance a political or social cause. Mourners who watched Lewis’s body cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., for last time in 2020 held signs reading “Thank you, John Lewis!” and “Good Trouble” as they applauded and sang in tribute to the civil rights and political leader on the way to his interment.

Given Powell’s background as a trailblazer and the deep respect he engendered, it would have made sense to hold a full public mourning ritual — after all, three presidents from both parties attended his service. It’s unknown why specifically the general did not receive this honor. Perhaps Powell himself, in keeping with his well-known humility, wanted a smaller funeral, or perhaps his family wanted to avoid possible political backlash or creating a potential coronavirus superspreader event.

But not having Powell lie in state in the Capitol and not having a larger state funeral attended by a wide group of public mourners deprived the United States of the chance to honor a highly distinguished Black American and include him in a pantheon of national heroes.

This is especially significant because Powell embodied a tradition of bipartisanship that is increasingly out of fashion in a severely polarized national political scene. He was a Republican, but he also endorsed Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Biden. Moreover, it also negated an important opportunity to collectively mourn those, like Powell, lost to covid-19. No one took the opportunity to use Powell’s death to try to reunite Americans in their resolve against the pandemic or to try to make some sense of the tremendous loss of over 750,000 Americans.

Without a full state mourning ritual, Americans could not express the kind of collective grief that has often shaped public life and created opportunities for Americans to imagine their common bonds.

Sarah J. Purcell is L. F. Parker Professor of History at Grinnell College.