The National Cathedral: A Neighborhood Church and an Icon in American History


The National Cathedral. Image credit: Washington National Cathedral

The Washington National Cathedral has been the location of funeral and memorial services for many U.S. Presidents since Congress approved the Cathedral’s charter in 1893. State funerals of recent note were for Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald R. Ford, and George H.W. Bush. The most recent funeral service of Senator John McCain, although not a State funeral, had all the security complexities of a State funeral.

Yet this is also a DC neighborhood church, whose parishioners prepared and provided 307 Easter baskets to Friendship Place, and in 2018 assembled 1,270 food baskets for Thanksgiving for delivery to distribution partners around the city. How does that same neighborhood church handle a State Funeral for a former President?

It takes a lot of experience and preparation.

“A State funeral is complicated, because there are so many different parties involved,” said Kevin Eckstrom, Washington National Cathedral’s Chief Communications Officer. “A State funeral is essentially four things at once. It is a family funeral. It is a national service, something the whole nation pays attention to. It is a military event. It is a major TV broadcast. All on top of each other. So security for an event like that is ultimately decided by the Secret Service.”

The Cathedral has their own police force that patrols the property and is in charge of not only the Cathedral, but the three schools nearby. This local force works with the Secret Service during many different events, so having the Secret Service showing up is now fairly routine for Cathedral staff.

Eckstrom explained how security is typically organized.

“They [Secret Service] decide things like who has access to certain parts of the Cathedral, who has to go through security to access other parts of the Cathedral, or where security lines are drawn. They draw a perimeter, within which everything is high security. The Secret Service decides where that line should be drawn around the property, and it tends to change from event to event. But in an event like [President Bush’s State Funeral] you had foreign dignitaries such as Angela Merkel [German Chancellor] and Prince Charles, which changes the game as well. Then we had virtually the entire Congress for the [Bush] State Funeral and they come with their own security details from Capitol Hill. So the National Cathedral was quite possibly the safest place to be in Washington, DC that day.”

“We can’t talk about particulars, but it means that everyone, from the President on down to the sextons, or the custodians, need to know how they are going to get into the building, when they are going to get into the building, and what doors and what levels of security they have to go through,” said Eckstrom.

What is particularly complicated about a State funeral is that, while the Secret Service handles security, the actual funeral service is a collaboration between the Cathedral clergy, who handles the religious part, and the Military District of Washington, who handles all of the pomp and circumstance and acts as custodians of the deceased from the time they arrive until the time they leave.

“We have about 75 full-time staff members. A State funeral is not that much different from a family funeral, it is just on a much grander scale. There can be a lot of preparation involving Cathedral staff, clergy and family representatives. When it comes to volunteering and staffing, often times high-level dignitaries have lots of staff. For the Bush State Funeral, a lot of staff from both Bush administrations worked as volunteers for the memorial service. Duties can involve everything from working with the media (which is what I’m involved with) to ushers’ seating plans and seating charts, but basically all of that was handled by the Bush family,” said Eckstrom.

There is a core of Cathedral ushers that work an event like a funeral for a notable person or a State Funeral and the families will typically bring in their own people too, as the Bush family did.

The Cathedral clergy has an entire music department, and music during a service is usually performed by National Cathedral staff. But for a State Funeral, military bands participate. The Bush Funeral included a choir of about 100 people from the military, plus the Cathedral choir, coordinated by the Cathedral’s music department. They work with whatever the family has requested for music. For example, John McCain spent about 6 months preparing the details for his funeral, and so they worked closely with the McCain family on this.

“We have a policy, we don’t talk about anyone’s funeral plans that may or may not be in process,” said Eckstrom. “Nothing says a President’s funeral has to be held at the Cathedral, ultimately it is up to the family or the President himself. President Nixon’s funeral service was held [on the grounds of] his library. President Johnson’s funeral service was held at National City Christian Church, in Washington, D.C. So there is no requirement that they have a State funeral at the Cathedral. However, we are equipped to handle State funerals: most churches are not. There is a standing offer to all former Presidents if they want to have their funerals here, but it is ultimately up to them,” said Eckstrom.

Could someone from the neighborhood or a parishioner have attended or even stood on the Cathedral’s grounds during Senator McCain’s funeral or during a State Funeral? Sorry, the other side of Wisconsin Avenue, from the Cathedral at 3101 Wisconsin, is the closest you will get to watch arrivals. The Cathedral side at 3101 Wisconsin is within the security perimeter. So the best place to watch these national events is on television.

The Cathedral is funded entirely privately. “The National Cathedral is Episcopalian, but everyone is welcome,” Eckstrom said.

So, if you wanted to have your funeral or wedding at the Cathedral, how do you go about it?

“Honestly, you just ask,” said Eckstrom. “We don’t have a policy of who is in and who is out. We will consider any requests we get. Are their scenerios we where would have to say ‘no’? Of course, but what those particulars would be are hard to say until we are presented with a case.”

There are about 30 weddings a year held at the National Cathedral. Applicants don’t have to be Cathedral members or donors, but at least one member of the prospective married couple has to be Christian. Applicants typically require approval of their ministers, but don’t have to have a direct connection to the Cathedral.

It’s an icon in American history, but it’s also a neighborhood church and a gathering place for the community. There’s so much to know and appreciate about the National Cathedral.