The Death of a President

April 12 marks the 75th anniversary of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock, archives technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

“We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction, that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

—Franklin D. Roosevelt

In the early afternoon of April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt was in his private cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia, signing papers and sitting to have his portrait painted. Slowly he raised his hand to his head complaining of a debilitating headache. He then slumped forward, losing consciousness. At 3:35 p.m. he was pronounced dead.

The President’s sudden death at age 63 stunned the nation. FDR had been the Chief Executive for more than 12 years—young Americans had no memory of any other President. The timing of his death, when victory in World War II was at hand, added to the country’s grief. 

Roosevelt’s health was in decline as he prepared for an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944 and the impending victory and aftermath of World War II. A March 1944 examination by his doctors revealed a variety of heart ailments, high blood pressure, and bronchitis. Those close to the President—and even those who saw him speak in public—took note of his weak appearance, low energy, and his struggle with concentration and memory. 

Most of the American public, however, was unaware of the President’s ailments because of FDR’s strong public addresses in 1944 that assuaged any concerns. Roosevelt’s victory in the election of 1944 and the diplomatic pressures of the Yalta Conference the following February, had put the President under immense strain. In April 1945, FDR returned to Warm Springs, a destination that had served since the 1920s as his favorite retreat. There, on April 12, he collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Harry S. Truman took the oath of office the same day.

The President’s body was carried by train back to Washington, DC. Full military honors were rendered in a procession from Union Station to the White House. The streets were lined with units of the nation’s Armed Forces and thousands of grieving citizens. At the White House the casket was placed in the East Room, where a private Episcopal funeral service was conducted at 4 p.m. That evening the casket was removed and placed on a train for the somber trip to the President’s Hyde Park, New York, home.

At Hyde Park the casket was transferred to a horse-drawn gun carriage and carried up the hill to the estate preceded by a military band and a battalion of West Point cadets. Limousines containing President Truman, the Roosevelt family, and close associates followed. Roosevelt was buried in the Rose Garden at Hyde Park.

The rector of St. James Episcopal Church read the burial service, three volleys were fired over the grave, and taps was sounded as the casket was lowered to its final resting place.

In December 1937, Franklin Roosevelt had written out instructions for his funeral and burial. The four-page document, kept folded in an envelope in Roosevelt’s personal safe in his bedroom at the White House, was discovered only after he was interred on April 15, 1945.

The instructions are detailed, with most tending to reinforce a simple ceremony. While the document wasn’t found in time to help shape planners’ decisions, the commemoration aligned with some of the specifications that FDR had set out years before. Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that the couple had discussed a mutual aversion to the practice of “lying in state,” and so they eschewed that tradition. 

There were other significant aspects that FDR’s funeral planners got right, however: the initial small, closed ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the use of a gun carriage to transport the casket in accordance with a military funeral, and the burial in the garden at the Roosevelt’s estate in Hyde Park, New York.

This sound recording captures a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) correspondent’s report of the arrival of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train at Union Station, Washington, DC, and the procession from Union Plaza down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

To learn more about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visit the FDR Presidential Library’s website or search our online catalog

2 thoughts on “The Death of a President

  1. I’ve always said that FDR was the greatest president of the 20th century. A nice piece or writing. I really enjoyed it. Brought back some memories as I was only 6 yrs old at the time of his death but I do remember my parents period of sorrow at his passing and the radio reports.

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