Lying in State: Changing Perceptions Change Language
Ladybird Johnson will lie in repose in Austin…
This business of “lying in repose” is a fairly new phenomenon in American speech.
The custom of exposing the dead body of an important person in a ceremonial manner before burial has been around for a very long time. The English expression for describing it has too.
The common way to describe this custom in English is to say that the body is lying in state. The word “state” here has the meaning of “pomp” or “formal dignity.”
In London in 1965 I was in the long line of people who shuffled past Winston Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall. A similar scene took place there in 2002 when the Queen Mother died. According to the British press, she did not “lie in repose.” She lay in state.
So why do American journalists have so much trouble with the expression?
I’ve come across websites that go to great lengths to provide different definitions for “lying in state,” “lying in honor,” and “lying in repose.” These definitions may catch on, but they seem to be an effort to create differences where none need exist.
I think that what has happened is that Americans have so narrowed the meaning of “state” that the expression “to lie in state” no longer makes sense to them when applied to anyone other than a king or an American president. They confuse “state” in “lying in state” with “state” in “state funeral.” When a non-president, like Coretta Scott King, or Ladybird Johnson, is given the honor of lying in state, reporters who associate “state” with “the State” feel the need for some other expression. (I find “lying in repose” especially unfortunate. To me it sounds like something made up by a funeral director, like “slumber room.”)
Another expression that has come into use because of changing social conditions is the Devil is in the details. People use this expression to express exasperation with having to pay attention to what they perceive as tedious details necessary to complete a project.
People of an earlier age had a different view of details. They said that God is in the details.
Although the expression is often attributed to German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the concept was familiar in the European Middle Ages.
Monks spent days illuminating one letter in a manuscript, offering the time and effort as an act of worship. Ordinary workmen took pains with their daily labor with the same attitude.
Different times, different ways of looking at life: a thought for us historical novelists to keep in mind.
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