ICFM Magazine, August-September 2004
For the 15 funeral service professionals involved in the ceremonial farewell for former President Reagan, being a part of history meant hard work, long hours and the knowledge that the eyes of the world were on what they did and how well they did it.
A lifetime of preparation, an "all star" team of funeral directors, a cell phone and a steady supply of Diet Coke got Bob Boetticher, Sr. through what he calls "the honor of a lifetime," directing the funeral preparations for former President Ronald Reagan.
Boetticher, based in Houston, Texas, spent the second week of June working at the funeral home chosen by the Reagan family, Gates Kingsley Gates, Santa Monica, California. Boetticher is director of special projects for Service Corporation International.
Because the Reagan ceremonies were split between the East and West coasts, Boetticher was on the phone constantly with Randy Weagley, president of Joseph Gawler's Sons, Washington, D.C., who headed the East Coast team. Gawler's, in business since 1850, originally was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, "right up the street from the White House," and has a long tradition of serving presidents and other dignitaries, Weagley said. Both Gawler's and Gates Kingsley are part of the Dignity Memorial Network.
The funeral directors involved (see the photos above and below for a full list of team members) are trained not only in their profession but also in the protocol involved in a state funeral, which involves coordination with the military, the Secret Service and other police agencies. Dealing with a rush hour motorcade from Andrews Air Force Base into Washington, DC, is quite a bit different from handling a procession from a funeral home to a cemetery.
"For all of the ceremonial portions of the service that you see on television we practice every detail,” Weagley said "Where your car will be, what you will do, where you will stand, how you will conduct yourself."
In addition to making time for long practice sessions, the funeral directors had to be ever aware of the photographers and television cameras. "When we would go outside the funeral home and adjust the flowers or pick up the letters and other things left for Mrs. Reagan," Boetticher said, "we tried to stay inconspicuous, remain in the background and get our jobs done without overshadowing the event. We were aware that we were representing funeral service; we always had our coats and ties on, so that if we were in a picture, we were dressed appropriately as well as acting appropriately."
Boetticher and Weagley don't go into a lot of detail as they talk about their experience. It's not that they simply don't feel like answering questions, Boetticher said. "Confidentiality is one of our No. 1 values as funeral directors. We were serving a family that had just lost a husband, a father and a grandfather. This is a family, they trusted us, and we cannot violate that trust, ever. That's what all funeral directors know. It doesn't matter that this was such a big event. In that aspect, it was a regular funeral, just a bigger one than normal."
Gates Kingsley Manager John Gerchas was part of the West Coast team. Other Gates Kingsley staff members concentrated on dealing with the funeral home's usual business. Though the media focus was on the Reagans, the funeral home "had other families to serve," Boetticher said.
"I hate to say 'East Coast team and West Coast team,' because it makes it sound like we’re separate, and we’re not,” he said, “We were 15 funeral directors who came together to do a job. However, the West Coast team had a little different responsibility because the Reagan family had chosen Gates Kingsley Funeral Home, so we had duties in addition to those for a state funeral.
“From when the president died on Saturday until Monday, when the Military District of Washington was involved, we were working not so much with the military as with the Reagan family and the staff at the library."
The West Coast team handled the removal from the Reagans' residence, preparation of the body for the funeral, selection of the casket—all the usual duties performed for any family and details not covered by the long state funeral plan mentioned by the press—before the Reagans headed to Washington, DC.
The East Coast team worked to support the Military District of Washington, the Secret Service, family representatives and others involved in the motorcade, the horse-drawn caisson procession to the Capitol, the lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda and the service at the National Cathedral. "We were extremely involved in the motorcade operation," Weagley said. The motorcade from the Air Force base into the center of Washington was a major logistical undertaking.
If everything about the bi-coastal event seemed to flow smoothly, it was due to constant communication.
''Randy and I talked constantly," Boetticher said. ''We relayed messages and talked about changes. Even though there's a plan, there are so many details that have to be taken care of; so many things you have to make sure are done, so communication is vital. We made sure each knew what the other was doing."
When events switched to the East Coast, the members of the West Coast team were able to rest a bit and let the impact of what they were doing sink in.
"We were so busy, we didn't know what was happening on the outside, because we never watched TV," Boetticher said, "When you're constantly working, constantly moving, getting very little sleep, you don't really know what's happening on the outside because you're so focused on the job you have to do.
"The West Coast team members didn't realize the enormity of it until Wednesday afternoon when we watched the arrival in Washington on television, and then we just said, 'Whoa.' Seeing what Randy and his people were doing in DC is what really affected my team. I just can't describe the feeling."
Both teams found the work all-consuming. "We tried to be prepared for things," Weagley said, "but sometimes it just takes longer than you anticipated to get things done. You finish up late and then there's no place to get something to eat."
"That was one of the things we didn't anticipate—the lack of sleep," Boetticher agreed. "We only got about maybe three hours a night—if we even slept. And food was very hard to come by."
On Friday, after the service at Washington National Cathedral, which drew governmental representatives from all over the world, the Reagans returned to California, where the former president was laid to rest in the grounds of the presidential library following a private, family-oriented ceremony. However, there was one more public event.
"On Friday, Mrs. Reagan asked that the motorcade be slowed down and that we go through the residential areas to get back to the library," Boetticher said. "In the hearse, we were so close to the people that they could lay flowers on it, and we could see the grief in their eyes.
"At Gates Kingsley, people were coming 24 hours a day to pay their respects. As we watched them, one gentleman came in his World War II uniform and stood by the fountain and laid his medal on the ground in front of a picture of the president and saluted."
Honor of a Lifetime
Boetticher and Weagley both described the experience as a great honor, "the honor of a lifetime," as Boetticher put it.
"We are so honored to be asked to help each and every family we serve," Weagley said, "and certainly to be involved in a service for somebody who had such an amazing impact on our country and our way of life today as President Reagan did is truly awe-inspiring.
"As Bob said, you're handling so many things during the week that you're almost not too sure where you are sometimes, there are so many things happening. When it filters down to you what you've been involved in, it's truly inspiring. When I first entered funeral service, President Reagan was in office, and it's amazing for me to look back on those days and then to have had the honor to assist in his service and memorialization. We tried to uphold the highest possible professional standard of service and make everybody proud."
Both of them have heard from many of their colleagues in funeral service. "One of the proud moments for us has been the emails and letters we've gotten from people we don't even know, as well as our friends in funeral service, people we respect," Boetticher said. "When they say 'you represented funeral service well,' it makes you feel humble."