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The Burial of a President

A Behind-the-Scenes Diary  - By Dennis Welzenbach

Published August 2004 NCBVA Bulletin


Monday, June 7 

Talk among exhibits and attendees at the annual Missouri Funeral Director Convention in St. Louis, Missouri focused on the death the preceding Saturday of our nation’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan.

Naturally, there was more than casual interest in the funeral and burial details, including speculation about the casket and the burial vault that would be selected.  A phone call from Bob Boetticher of Service Corporation International (SCI, Houston, Texas) to his old friend Joe Suhor in the Wilbert booth confirmed that SCI would be responsible for the arrangements in the Reagan funeral.  A Marcellus Masterpiece casket and a Wilbert Bronze burial vault had been selected.  The casket was oversized, however, and wouldn’t fit in the selected vault.

Personnel at the Wilbert booth began asking more questions: “Can a Wilbert Bronze®, which comes in a #30, be made into a #34, or is there an oversized vault somewhere that’s available?”  All agreed that the very best should be appropriated for the late president.

Talk was transformed into action when Bob Boetticher asked Suhor Industries to act as consultant in the arrangements of the appropriate vault and its entombment at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  Someone remembered that Roland Vault in Marion, Iowa, had poured several #34 Wilbert® Triunes.  Calls were made.  Yes, a vault was available.  Mark Shalz then called Jim McAlpin at Moberly Wilbert Vault, which was the closest plant to Marion, to see if he could get the vault the next day and bring it to Kansas City.  But what about transporting the vault from Kansas City to Simi Valley, California?

Mark Shalz immediately spoke up, “I can take it.”  I also volunteered to go along.  Both of us knew this was a privilege for any American, as well as the unique honor of a lifetime.  At that time, we had no idea of the extent of our involvement or the size of the funeral that would take place in just a few days.

Tuesday, June 8

Starting today, the picture became much clearer.  In the evening, the vault would be in the Kansas City Wilbert Vault plant, where the final clean-up, painting and preparations for travel would be made.  Bob Luikart and Patty Loyall, when notified of the circumstances, were committed to stay late cleaning and preparing the vault, which had been in inventory for several years. This vault had to be perfect.

In the meantime, Mark Shalz was discussing the possibility for a Legacy American flag to cover the carapace; Andrew Welzenbach was downloading a copy of the Presidential Seal for the carapace, in case that was approved; and the standard Wilbert Bronze® Triune markings were also readied and would be available for departure on Wednesday.

Joe Suhor was coordinating involvement with Bob Boetticher, the lead director, who was now in Simi Valley.  They discussed the carapace options that needed approval before applying.  While the funeral director’s staff believed the Legacy Flag or Presidential Seal would be a good addition, there had yet been no approval from the family.  At this late date, it was not certain if approval could be obtained because the planning of the ceremony had begun and arrangements for a trip to Washington, DC and a return to Simi Valley were already in the works.

Wednesday, June 9

Transporting the Vault from Kansas City to California

In the morning, final preparations were made for loading the burial vault onto the one-ton pick-up truck usually driven by Mike Anderson, the St. Joseph plant manager.  A one-ton truck is stout enough to carry the vault without a trailer, so it would not be necessary to stop for DOT weigh scales.  There was also room enough for the necessary equipment (straps, spreader bar, etc.) and luggage.  To protect the vault from damage, Styrofoam was placed in the truck bed so the vault would not shift.  A special plywood cover protector was built to sit on top of the vault.  Plastic wrap was put around it as a buffer.  A blue tarp covered the entire unit, and was strapped securely from corner to corner.

At 2 p.m., the truck and cargo rolled out of Kansas City for the long trip.  Non-reclining seats and one-ton suspension can be hard on the body.  There was rain in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.  Calls came in during the trip to offer us encouragement and assistance.  The only stops we made were for fuel, food, drink and switching of drivers.  Twenty-six hours later, after traveling through three time zones and seven states, Mark and I arrived at 40 Presidential Drive in Simi Valley.

Thursday, June 10

The Scene at the Library

It was a beautiful day-78 degrees with bright blue skies.  A small traffic jam had formed along the road as mourners parked, got out of their vehicles and placed bouquets of flowers and other mementos at the entrance of the Library.  Just beyond the entrance was a temporary guard station where security personnel interviewed anyone who wanted entrance.  Once waived through this station, visitors were directed to another line where their vehicle would be thoroughly searched and then checked out by bomb-sniffing dogs.  A Secret Service agent asked if we could remove the cover of the vault.  When I told him it weighed 900 pounds, he settled for searching luggage.  Soon we were allowed to travel up the hill and onto the grounds.

Once at the top, we met Bob, who worked for the construction company that is currently building an addition onto the Library.  Because much of the preparation for the funeral and burial was construction-related, Bob was to be the point man for many of the duties.  He directed us to the back of the Library, where we removed the vault from the truck and put it in a secure and private location.

Then we were allowed to go back to the front of the Library to the west side where we visited the interment site.  What a scene!  Secret Service agents wearing black suits, sunglasses and earpiece hearing devices (made obvious by their squiggly wires) were everywhere.  There were construction workers with forklifts, backhoes, hammers and saws.  Caterers prepared for the reception that was to take place immediately after the funeral service.  Landscapers hauled in temporary hedges and new plantings to mark walkways and make the Library grounds look fresh.  Television crews set up cameras and sound systems and issued instructions to Library personnel to ensure that everyone would be in place and crews could get the best shots.  A squad of riflemen practiced the 21-gun salute and the Color Guard marched around the Library and traced the steps they would be taking.

We had more questions for Bob, who said he would talk to us again at the 4 p.m. conference call that was being arranged by Joe Suhor to coordinate final plans for the interment.  This call had several parties on the line: the mortuary team from SCI; a cemetery team from SCI; the vault team from Suhor Industries; and Bob, the on-site construction superintendent.  Because Bob Boetticher from SCI had overall funeral responsibility, he began walking through the process.  Question:  How do we get into the tomb that is underneath the Memorial?  Answer:  An excavation would be made on the west side, including tearing up the sidewalk that opened into the Memorial space.  This was to be handled by an outside excavator who had a one-yard track hoe on site for this work.  More questions:  How would the concrete door be removed and where would it be put?  How would the casket get from the ceremony back into the vault?  And how would the vault be placed in the excavation site and then into the tomb?

The answers to these questions wouldn’t be known until Friday night after the excavation was made.  Although there were drawings of the tomb, few people were allowed to see them.  The Secret Service was involved and security clearances were a primary concern.  More questions:  Who would bring all the equipment that might be necessary for this job of unknown magnitude?  How long would all this take?

   When we finally received our orders, we learned that we were to arrive at 10 p.m. on Friday and that we must be finished by sunrise on Saturday (6 a.m.).  Everyone was confident that his part of the job could and would be completed.  We believed there would be enough people and equipment to do just about anything in that window of time.  Now it was time to go to the hotel, get some rest and await the events of tomorrow.

Friday, June 11

Naturally, we woke up on Central time instead of Pacific.  Although we were tired, we knew our priority was to search stores in town for equipment and supplies we would need that evening.  After visiting building supply stores, various auto part and hardware stores, we purchased a set of chains, a come-along and some rollers to help get the vault into the tomb.  Joe Suhor, however, had been fortunate to obtain Secret Service clearance and was invited by Bob Boetticher to ride in one of the funeral limos from Point Mugu Air Base to the Library.

When the services at the Library ended around 9 p.m., Mark and I gathered our things and went to the truck to begin our drive to Simi Valley.  Our hotel in Ventura was now the location of the funeral service team and close to the funeral home that was the limousine and hearse rendezvous point.  It also housed the California Highway Patrol Motorcycle Division that provided escort service to the motorcade.

The 30-minute drive up the Ventura highway put us at the base of the small mountain that the Library sits atop.  We went through two more checkpoints by Secret Service, then to the parking lot adjacent to the Library.  There, we met the funeral service team who informed us that on the opposite side of the Library there had been a large reception planned for the 700 invited guests.  The family, however, evidently exhausted by the events of the week, left immediately after the Flag Ceremony.  The guests boarded their buses and headed back home, too.

Because there was all that food and not enough people to eat it, we were invited to join the party.  Principally, the unintentional guests were the service band, service choir, and the many armed forces and Secret Service personnel who had participated in the ceremony.  It was here that we met the SCI cemetery crew that came to assist in the burial.  They were well equipped, experienced, and led by Javier Berumen.

After our late-night snack, we went back to the parking lot and stood around until we were given the nod to go.  We then walked toward the east side of the Presidential burial site.  At that point, we were waved through by two Secret Service agents and walked the semi-circle from the back to the front of the Memorial area.  Halfway around, Mark and I stopped, looked to our right and saw the casket containing President Reagan.  We were within arms length of it.  We looked at each other with wide eyes and walked on.  Four Secret Service agents stood over to the north side, talking among themselves, but making sure we passed without doing anything that would be considered out of bounds.

Burial Preparations Begin

As we looked around the site for interment, we noted that others were anxious to start work, but at that point, we were without direction.  The cemetery and excavation crews were ready.  An event crew was setting up a 20 x 30 tent to shield the operation from long-distance camera lenses.  Mark and I went behind the Library to retrieve the vault.  Bob, the job site superintendent, fired up his huge backhoe, lifted the vault, and, with our help and care, began to move it to the front of the Library.  Once the vault got to the parking lot, it was transferred onto a smaller forklift and driven down the sidewalk to a location approximately 75 feet from the casket’s resting place.

At this point, the Library curator was concerned that little progress was being made.  It was just after midnight and not enough had been done, in his opinion.  He had previously given us a 6 a.m. deadline for total completion and, based on his stern look, he intended to keep this deadline.  We were told there would be absolutely no pictures taken or cameras present during the evening.  We were then asked to identify ourselves.  The curator said if we were not an essential part of what was going on at any particular time, we would be asked to retreat to the parking lot until we were beckoned again.  (As it turned out, Mark, Joe and I were able to stay on site for everything that was done.)

Beat the Clock

Everyone understood there was no time to waste.  The vault was opened and prepared to receive the casket.  Once again, the forklift was started up and the cover of the vault was removed with the chains we had brought.  Then, by the light of our flashlights, we began to peel off the plastic film that protected the bronze from being scratched during handling.  The curator and a Reagan family representative came over to look inside the vault and investigate what we were doing.  One side of the plastic coating had been pulled off to reveal the bronze.  As we shined light on the vault, one of them exclaimed, “Isn’t that awesome?”  Mark and I looked at each other and knew instantly that the long journey, the lack of sleep and the late nights were all worth it.

The two gentlemen began to help pull off the plastic.  When the plastic was completely removed, we began to wipe the bronze finish clean.  Then, we set three 2 x 4s crosswise on the vault to act as casket rest for the pallbearers.  We placed four cloth straps that would be used for the lowering across the top of the vault.  It was time for the casket to be brought to the vault for installation.  All the funeral service personnel were dressed in black suits, white shirts and red ties.  They were all well suited for communication, too, with earpiece devices that looked very similar to those used by the Secret Service.

Saturday, June 12 

Delivering Ultimate Service

It was now after midnight and everyone was getting anxious.  We had been waiting for an event crew to set up a tent to the west side of the site to provide privacy.  Because of the difficult hillside location, valuable time was being lost in set up.  The curator decided to eliminate the tent.  As an alternative, he had half of the portable light towers that were being used to illuminate the area turned around to shine light back out into the surrounding hills.  As a result, anyone with a long-distance camera lens would not be able to focus on what was going on.  Again, privacy was paramount.  Once this was done, we were ready to begin the interment.

The eight pallbearers and Joe Suhor went to the casket bier on the Memorial site, picked up the casket and brought it over to the burial vault, setting it on the 2 x 4s we had cut as temporary casket rests.  At that time, Mark took the head of the casket and I took the foot, and, along with the pallbearers, lifted up the casket, pulled out the 2 x 4s, and held the casket briefly before it was lowered into the vault.  Paper towels were used to wipe down the dew that had accumulated on the casket through the evening.  Then the forklift and a set of cover chains were used to lift the cover and seal the vault.  Only the funeral service team and Suhor Industries personnel were at the committal site during this entire process.  There were no cameras allowed except for the curator’s, who officially documented the interment.  No one was allowed to be included in these photos.

After the vault was sealed, the excavation and cemetery crews from SCI came back.  The excavators began to access the tomb, which is underneath the Memorial site.  Digging took approximately one hour.  The poured concrete tomb had been made for President and Mrs. Reagan almost 15 years ago.  Some of the framing materials, nails and other debris had been left behind.  These were removed, along with a small amount of water that had seeped in, and the floor was swept clean.  The floor had to be as clean and smooth as possible because the vault would be pushed more than 20 feet by brute force on rollers in a similar fashion the Egyptians had used in building the pyramids.

The excavator utilized a hook, picked up the burial vault, moved it into position and lowered it into the west end of the tomb.  Some temporary blocking was set up to hold the vault before removing the chains.  Rollers were placed in the tomb in front of the vault and the excavator was utilized to begin nudging the vault and its contents into the tomb.  When the end of the vault was totally inside the lip of the tomb, Suhor Industries and the SCI cemetery crew pushed the more than 5,000 pounds of President Reagan’s casket and vault into their final resting place.  This took about 20 minutes.  The rollers were picked up from the back end of the vault and placed in the front as progress was made towards the end.  Once at the end, about 20 pounds of crushed ice was placed on the floor of the tomb so that the vault could be levered off with pry bars from the pipes onto the ice.  When the ice melted, the vault would rest in the exact place it was intended.

Burial Complete—With Dignity & Ahead of Schedule

Once the vault was entombed, the crews cleaned up their tools and all the temporary blocking.  The door to the tomb was carefully reinstalled and backfilling began.  It was 3:30 a.m.  The final steps were now ahead:   The excavation would be leveled off, tamped in and concrete forms readied, with new sidewalks poured by dawn.  Because we were ahead of schedule, everyone knew all this could be completed within the time constraints.

A page in history had been closed, and we had been part of it.  It had been our honor to participate in the burial of our nation’s 40th president.  I can say with confidence that President Reagan was interred quietly and privately, with dignity and solemnity.  While we will never forget the week and its challenges, we hold in our memories the satisfaction of a job well done to highly discerning standards.

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