What It Means to Be Lying in State

On Friday, John McCain will become the 31st person to lie in state in the United States Capitol, joining a short list of American leaders to have their coffins displayed at the Rotunda for public viewing.

Dating back to 1852, it’s among the rarest of posthumous tributes for government officials in the United States. As such, the lingo and customs of the ceremony might be unknown to many.

Here are some of the basics.

Lying in state, honor and repose: They’re different

The terms are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences.

By strict definitions, lying in state is reserved for those who served in the government, and it applies only to the time their coffins are displayed in the Capitol or a government building, either in Washington or at the state level. The ceremony is accompanied by a military guard.

If the ceremony is outside a capitol building, it is described as lying in repose.

Anyone not from government whose remains are put in public view in a government building is said to be lying in honor, accompanied by a Capitol Police guard.

That said, “lying in state” is often used colloquially for private citizens, as when a long line of visitors paid respects to Aretha Franklin at the Wright Museum in Detroit this week. She was not technically lying in state in the governmental sense, but most news outlets, including The New York Times, used the phrase.

Who gets the honor?

Aside from the 31 people to lie in state, four private citizens have lain in honor at the Capitol: the Rev. Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist, in February; Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader, in 2005; and two Capitol Police officers, Jacob J. Chestnut and John Gibson, who were shot in the Capitol in 1998.

No specific criteria decide who is chosen, beyond the approval of Congress and the consent of the deceased’s family.

Eleven have been presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Taft, Kennedy, Hoover, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan and Ford.

Mr. McCain will become the 13th senator to lie in state, including some who later reached the White House. The last senator to lie in state was Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, in 2012.

The list also includes House members, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Adm. George Dewey, J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I., unknown soldiers of major wars in the 20th century, and Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the planner who designed the layout of Washington.

[See a full list here.]

Until the early 20th century, lying in state ceremonies were typically reserved for presidents or members of Congress who died in office, said Betty K. Koed, a historian at the United States Senate. Now, it depends on what the family wants. To her knowledge, nobody has been denied the honor.

“Some families are more private than others,” Ms. Koed said. “Some are comfortable in the public eye and some are not.”

President Truman opted not to lie in state because he “hated those big ceremonies,” said Steve Livengood, director of public programs and chief guide at the United States Capitol Historical Society. “He knew his wife never wanted to be first lady and hated Washington and she would have to live through his funeral.”

What happens in the ceremony?

Mr. McCain’s coffin will be displayed atop the catafalque — a wooden platform covered in fabric — built for Abraham Lincoln’s coffin in 1865.

Members of the public will be invited into the Capitol beginning at 2 p.m. Friday, after a morning service in which Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Paul D. Ryan are scheduled to speak in a live-streamed service.

[See a full schedule of tributes to Mr. McCain.]

The crowds to see people lying in state can be in the tens of thousands if it’s a presidential ceremony. Large crowds also lined up to see Ms. Parks lying in honor.

Ms. Koed, at the Senate Historical Office, estimates that the crowds could be in the thousands and that the lines would start early in the morning. Although some may pause by the coffin, the line generally moves continuously like a procession.

Along the way, people can expect some stories to be told. “People will be remembering things, telling stories, talking about the first time they met Senator McCain,” Ms. Koed said. “There’ll be a lot of that going on, a quiet murmur in the crowd. It will be quiet and respectful.”

Melissa Gomez contributed reporting.