It was more like a presidential inauguration than a funeral.
Among the more than two thousand invitation-only attendees were President and Mrs. Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger, future President Gerald Ford, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Acting Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, former Attorney General John Mitchell, and former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, wife of the deceased President Dwight Eisenhower.
The list of other government politicos, VIPs of various origins, and key FBI personnel who attended National Presbyterian Church on May 4, 1972 is too long for this space — but two others should be noted. Eferm Zimbalist, Jr., who played Inspector Lewis Erskine for nine years on the television show, The FBI, was seated among actual agents — as was Mark Felt, then number three at the Bureau, but later remembered more prominently as “Deep Throat,” the informant who blew the cover on the Nixon Administration during the Watergate affair.
Those millions who had not been invited to the church could take part from afar — all three major networks were giving it live coverage.
The man whose death engendered all of this attention was J. Edgar Hoover, a folk hero to many Americans of that era. He was 77 when he died. Over time, Hoover’s reputation became sullied, but not on the day of his funeral.
The day prior to the service, Hoover’s body had lain in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. He was only the twenty-second person to have been accorded this honor — eight of the others were U.S. Presidents. Twenty-five thousand people filed by his body at the Rotunda.
Others paid their respects along the route as the hearse transported Hoover’s remains from the Capitol to the church for the funeral service. Included along that route were hundreds of law officers who stood at attention and saluted the passing casket.
The casket merits a brief aside as it has become a matter of folklore. Hoover was buried in a lead-lined Belmont Masterpiece Casket that weighed more than half a ton. It has been said that this lead-lined casket was selected to shield Hoover’s body from potential grave robbers, vandals, or, in one extreme theory, radiation damage during a nuclear war.
According to FBI Special Agent Paul Letersky in his thorough and balanced book, The Director, My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover, the Masterpiece model was chosen because “a sealed lead lining was common in high-end caskets, designed to protect against moisture seepage and preserve the body for a longer time.” In fact, luminaries from President Lyndon Johnson to Marilyn Monroe were also interred in bronze Belmonts.
Officiating at the funeral was Hoover’s longtime friend and pastor, Dr. Edward L. R. Elson, who also happened to be chaplain of the United States Senate. When Hoover died, President Nixon wanted to “go big” with the event — he envisioned using the outdoor amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery to obtain maximum publicity. But owing to Hoover’s relationship with Dr. Elson and his attendance at National Presbyterian, the smaller church venue prevailed.
In his remarks during the service, Dr. Elson recalled how Hoover “struggled” over the choice of an occupation: it seems that the founding director of the FBI was deeply divided between the law and an inclination to enter the ministry. “Our loss of a clergyman in the church has been the great gain of the legal profession and a lifetime of devoted service to the public,” Elson said.
President Nixon delivered an eloquent eulogy which emphasized Hoover’s 48 years with the Bureau. “America has revered this man not only as the director of an institution, but as an institution in his own right,” Nixon said. “While eight presidents came and went…the Director stayed at his post.”
Hoover’s endurance, Nixon indicated, was reflected in the organization he formed: “The FBI will carry on in the future, true to its finest traditions in the past, because regardless of what the snipers and detractors would have us believe, the fact is that the Director built the bureau totally on principle, not on personality. He built well. He built to last. For that reason, the FBI will remain as a memorial to him, a living memorial…”
When the service concluded, the high profilers left in their limousines and fewer than one hundred gathered for Hoover’s burial at the family plot in The Congressional Cemetery.
It had been a portentous day, but strangely lacking in emotion. As Letersky pointed out in his book, “nobody cried at his funeral.” The dry eyes were probably due to the fact that Hoover was guarded when it came to interpersonal relationships; he was admired for his accomplishments, but few knew him intimately. Also, many of the mourners understood that the director had a less than heroic dimension which did not prompt sympathy. That dimension would ultimately become public, much to the detriment of his reputation.
As Hoover once testified before Congress: “I have a philosophy. You are honored by your friends and you are distinguished by your enemies. I have been very distinguished.”
Through the years, Hoover’s personal and professional reputation has continued to diminish. As Letersky wrote, “Perhaps never before in American history has a public figure been so widely admired and lauded in life and so widely condemned and vilified in death.”