Commemorating a president's life, in stationery and floral arrangements

By Sara Murphy
Mourning card for Abraham Lincoln that includes excerpts from his second inaugural address. The text is written on a white design made to look like a decorated altar.

When you think about it, funerals and other major life events are not all that different—well, aside from the obvious, that generally funerals are sad and events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and quinceañeras are happy. For each event there is a fair amount of planning involved, especially regarding the invitations, the announcements, the programs, the thank-you cards, and the flowers. Like many other life events, funerals are traditional with traditional expectations. For most of us, traditions are private and reserved for friends and family. But when you are the president expectations change, and everything, especially your funeral, becomes larger and more public.

A single page with two handwritten messages. At the top of the page, John Adams writes: Presidents Message

In the days before the 24/7 news cycle, information traveled slowly. We couldn’t turn on a major television station and find out instantly what just happened in the world. News of a president’s death traveled from person to person, through word of mouth or letter or the newspaper.

Because the former president’s funeral would typically have taken place before the news of his death had spread to outlying states, memorial services would be held around the country so that people could mourn their fallen leader. For example, eulogies for Presidents George Washington (1732–1799) and William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) were given in Boston, Massachusetts, New Rochelle, New York, and Concord, New Hampshire. William McKinley (1843–1901) received funeral honors from troops stationed in the Philippines, as well as The Ohio Republican Association (of his home state).

Printed booklet entitled: A Funeral Oration, Occasioned by the Death of Gen. George Washington
Printed booklet entitled: Programme of Funeral Honors in Memory of William McKinley

An integral part of the funeral or memorial service is the program. The program for most funerals lists hymns, prayers, a eulogy, and a benediction. Frequently at both memorial services and funerals, patriotic songs such as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and, of course, “The Star-Spangled Banner” are sung.

Printed booklet entitled: Memorial Services by the Citizens of Lowell, Massachusetts in Memory of Warren Gamaliel Harding
Single-page program for Kennedy memorial service
Stapled, multi-page document entitled: State Funeral Plan for the Honorable Dwight D. Eisenhower

An official event would not be complete without a floral arrangement. For presidents, they don’t all come from close, personal friends. For example, Queen Victoria sent a floral wreath for the funeral of James Garfield (1831–1881). The wreath rested atop the casket while the body of the president lay in state at the Capitol and during a funeral service. There were several floral arrangements displayed graveside, some of which were from foreign legations (a diplomatic minister) including Brazil and Bolivia. The floral arrangements were waxed immediately after the service and placed into airtight containers.

A dense arrangement of flowers. Some flowers have been placed to spell the message: Our Martyr President
Stereograph images showing floral wreaths and ribbons decorating an outdoor space.

As with a wedding, bar and bat mitzvah, or quinceanera, it is proper etiquette to send thank-you notes to family and friends who sent their regards. Special stationery was used during the mourning period for this purpose.

Stationary paper labeled “Washington” at the top of the page
Stationary paper with crest and message: Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.

A lovely tradition that has continued is that of the mourning card. It is a wonderful reminder of the person who has passed away and is also a souvenir token to be cherished. While we can only speculate about how these cards were distributed, it is entirely possible that mourning cards were produced around the nation and distributed for local memorials for the fallen leader. Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) mourning cards were embossed with decorative designs, images of tombs, and a black border. The cards featured life dates and a quote from his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” or a poem commemorating the president. Memorial cards for John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) were double-sided. The front displayed a likeness of the president and the reverse contained life dates, a short prayer, and a poem. Over the years, mourning cards have evolved to include an image of the departed and an obituary.

Mourning card for Abraham Lincoln that includes excerpts from his second inaugural address. Around the text, the card is decorated with an elaborate design of a young woman standing before a tombstone in mourning.
Mourning card for Abraham Lincoln that includes excerpts from his second inaugural address. The text is written on a white design cut to look like a decorated altar.
Mourning card for John F. Kennedy includes the message: Dear God, Please take care of your servant John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On the reverse is a portrait of Kennedy smiling.

This is the third post in the blog series ""Death in the Presidential Collections." Click here to read parts one, two, four, five, and six.

Sara Murphy is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.