We were prepared to write a column about how many news outlets incorrectly described the public viewing of the bodies of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former first lady Nancy Reagan as “lying in state.” Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, almost no one did.
Most reports, in broadcast and print, said that Mrs. Reagan, the widow of President Ronald Reagan, would “lie in repose” at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. A few print reports said Scalia would “lie in state” in the Supreme Court, but far more said he would “lie in repose.” Well done!
That means some people recognize that “lying in state” is reserved only for heads of government, and even then, only when “lying in state” in the building that is the seat of government, like the US Capitol. When President Reagan died, his body was on display in several places, though not at the same time, and many news reports said he was “lying in state” only in the Capitol Rotunda, and was “lying in repose” everywhere else.
But it’s not quite that simple. Not every president has “lain in state” in the Capitol, and not everyone who has “lain in state” in the Capitol has been head of state. It’s also been said that only someone who is getting a state funeral can “lie in state,” but that’s not a sure thing, either.
The truth is, it’s hard to find hard and fast rules governing who gets to “lie in state.” “These occasions are either authorized by a congressional resolution or approved by the congressional leadership, when permission is granted by survivors,” according to the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which should know. The list of the people who have “lain in state” in the Rotunda since the practice began in 1852 include 10 presidents; Pierre L’Enfant, the city planner for Washington, DC; members of Congress; military commanders; and unknowns from World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict. The most recent was Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, in 2015.
Until 1998, the only way to lay in the Rotunda was “in state.” After two Capitol police officers were killed in an attack, a special House resolution created a new category, to “lay in honor.” Rosa Parks “lay in honor” in 2005.
So if you are in the Rotunda, you’re either lying “in state” or “in honor.” If you’re not there, you are lying “in repose.”
But that’s such an odd expression. The person is dead—at rest, perhaps—but in “repose”?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has several definitions of the verb “repose,” including “to lay at rest,” “to lie at rest,” and “to lie dead.” As a noun, the definitions are “a state of resting (as after exertion)”; “eternal or heavenly rest”; “calm”; “peace”; etc.
“Repose” is a calming word, but it rarely appears outside of a context involving death. In the six months before the death of Scalia, only a few mentions in Nexis spoke not of heavenly rest but of some other kind, and many of those were in classical or artistic contexts. So be aware that even if you don’t intend death to stalk your use of “repose,” it probably will.
Now, what’s the difference between “lay at rest” and “lie at rest”? Simple: One’s a transitive verb (“They will lay his body to rest”) and the other is intransitive (“His body will lie at rest”). If you need further elocutions on “lay” and “lie,” they’re lying in this state.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.