The Long and Unusual Goodbye to Senator Robert Byrd

Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, served 51 years in the United States Senate and, at his death, was the longest serving, most senior Senator in United States history. For that reason, perhaps it's only fitting that unusually long career would end with an unusually long and unique goodbye.

Since his passing on Monday, June 28, Senator Byrd's casket has been carried more than 750 miles. While Senator Ted Kennedy's body traveled a great distance as well, the journey began at his home in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, and ended at his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

Senator Byrd's passage, on the other hand, has been circular: Virginia to Washington, D.C. to West Virginia and back to Virginia. His body will eventually make one final trip home to West Virginia, the state where his extraordinary career began. This final internment will be the fourth funeral farewell to Byrd.

Byrd's posthumous voyage began at Inova Hospital in Fairfax where, according a statement from his office, he died peacefully at around 3:00 a.m.

Four days later on July 1, his body was transported to Capitol Hill, where the he "lay in repose" inside the Senate Chamber, an old-fashioned tradition followed according to the wishes of his family and the guidance of Senate leadership.

According to the Senate Historian's Office, in the 19th and early 20th century, such services were more common. Transportation was more difficult, members often did not have homes in the area (many lived in boarding houses), and families were often back home. Without modern travel options and refrigeration techniques for preserving remains, when a senator died in office a funeral ceremony was sometimes held in the Senate chamber followed by a local burial service.

In modern times, however, both the Federal component and the selection of the Senate Chamber location are highly unusual for a deceased member of Congress. The last Senator to "lie in state" was Sen. Hubert Humphrey in 1978. The location, however, was the United States Capitol; Humphrey had also been Vice President under Lyndon Johnson. The passing of North Dakota Senator William Langer in 1959 was the last time a member lay in repose inside the Senate Chamber. There have only been 45 Senators honored by funeral in the Senate Chamber, the elite number now including Byrd.

Sen. Robert Byrd: Veteran of Congress Gets Four Funerals

On Friday, July 2, Senator Byrd's casket traveled from Washington to Charleston, West Virginia where he was memorialized in a State service attended by two presidents, Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle, and thousands of his constituents. State level funerals are a common observance in modern times.

The next stop was Columbia Gardens Cemetery at the Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. Here, a much smaller version of a public ceremony played out with a 21-gun salute. Senator Byrd was interned next to his wife Erma.

The journey for Senator Byrd, however, continues. His family is working to select a new site and plans to re-bury both Senator and Mrs. Byrd at a later date in West Virginia. Once the longest serving and most senior member Senator in U.S. history is laid to final rest, he will have traveled over a thousand miles, a marathon end to a marathon political career.

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