Rep. John R. Lewis lying in state: A sobering moment for a nation in turmoil

But if the ritual is rote and simple, the human stories occasioning it are the opposite. They are singular and rich. These descriptives certainly apply to Rep. John R. Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights hero whose death July 17 set in motion a parade of meaning-drenched ceremonies in his native South and, on Monday and Tuesday, in the Capitol, to lie in state. Before arriving at the Capitol, the motorcade carrying his casket stopped at the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, a mediagenic act laden with emotional subtext and political resonance.

And the ensuing Rotunda ceremony — with family and members of Congress of both parties in masks and socially distant seating — proved as passionate as it was emotional. It culminated in a recorded speech of Lewis exhorting Americans to “be bold, be courageous, stand up, speak up, speak out.” And a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by the Rev. Wintley Phipps was so poignant that it had mourners reaching for the tissue boxes at their feet.

In a time as fractious and unsettling as this one — when the conventions of discourse are disrupted by a pandemic, and the institutions of government rattled by an administration determined to undermine them — it is remarkable how potently such a hallowed act can hold us. The death of a revered figure, at least, can still bring the majority of us back to a level of compassion, and to a belief that some people and some traditions transcend discord and ill will.

That a black man of magnificent civic accomplishment lies in state, as the country reels from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, imbues the moment with an almost theatrical profundity. Could a writer have timed a more sobering scene for a nation in turmoil? Among the three dozen or so instances since 1852 in which Congress has authorized this distinction, Lewis is only the fifth person of color to lie in state or in honor as an individual. The others were civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut Jr., Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and, recently, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.

Calculating the rightful measure of respect for the dead is as sacred for us as it was for the ancients — around whom the mysteries of death were surely as, if not more, spiritually complex. Sophocles’s tragedy “Antigone,” written in the fourth century B.C., unfolds around the heroine’s outrage over the refusal on pain of death by the Theban king, Creon, to allow a proper burial for Antigone’s rebellious brother, Polynices.

“Will you aid this hand to lift the dead?” Antigone asks her sister, Ismene.

“You would bury him, when it is forbidden to Thebes?” Ismene replies.

“I will do my part,” Antigone vows, “and yours, if you will not, to a brother. False to him will I never be found.”

To this day, we satisfy a compact with those we mourn, with a duty, like Antigone’s, to account publicly for our respect, and affection. Fifty-seven years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I can still vividly recall watching Jackie Kennedy and their daughter, Caroline, kneeling beside his casket in the Rotunda, a tableau that made less abstract for 8-year-old me the finality of death and more penetrable the stoicism of a grieving public family.

Duty, of course, is also a good word for Lewis, who devoted his life to a righteous cause; the placing of his casket on the catafalque of pine boards constructed for Lincoln feels itself like a righteous completion of a journey. Because an exercise in veneration of a life of duty can also have a political dimension. Shakespeare, for one, knew that the death of a great public figure could command a stage, a fact grasped by every sixth-grader in America after they’ve been assigned “Julius Caesar.”

In one of the best-known orations of all time, Mark Anthony enters in Act 3 with the body of the assassinated Caesar to deliver a eulogy both personal and deeply political. “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me,” he says at one point in the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. It is surely a speech intended to spur the populace to rise up against Caesar’s enemies; the corollary on this occasion is the sentiment of Lewis’s friends and admirers, reminding mourners of a movement with work still to be done.

The ceremony in the Rotunda reflected the more conciliatory tones of Lewis’s political career: The speeches by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) spoke of the respect he commanded on both sides of the aisle. It was the invocation by the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. that brought more of the fire, recalling for the invited audience how Lewis “marched for us, bloodied for us, bruised for us.”

The recognition in the Capitol of John R. Lewis’s singular achievements — the astonishing arc of a life that began as the child of an Alabama sharecropper — reserved its most riveting moment for that recording of him speaking. The words of his chosen — “Never become bitter, never become hostile. We’re one people.” — were aimed at the conscience, a reminder that every life is sanctified, even lives with far humbler endings. In that way, it conjured other immortal words spoken over the body of a loved one: those of Linda Loman, the widow of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

“Attention,” she says, “attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

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