Funeral of Sandra Day O’Connor, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Funeral of Sandra Day O’Connor, Washington National Cathedral
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Tuesday, 19 December 2023, 11:00am

The building

There is much more to say about the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington than could ever be included in a Mystery Worship report. Please refer to their website, and to other resources easily located via Google, for a complete description of the cathedral’s appearance, history, ministries and outreaches, and curious trivia. The Washington National Cathedral stands as the fulfillment of city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant’s dream of ‘a great church for national purposes.’ It is the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as well as the Bishop of Washington. I believe that the cathedral was Justice O’Connor’s regular church during her time in the Supreme Court, and that she served as a lay reader there.

The church

Let me describe briefly the highlights of Justice O’Connor’s life. Born in Texas in 1930, Sandra Day studied law at the prestigious Stanford Law School, graduating third in her class. Even so, due to the prejudices of the day, she was unable to find a position in a law firm. She eventually found employment as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, where she worked for no salary and without an office. Marrying a fellow law student, John Jay O'Connor III, she accompanied her husband to Germany on Army business and took a position as a civilian attorney for the Army's Quartermaster Corps. The O’Connors eventually returned to the United States and took up residence in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. In Arizona, Sandra Day O’Connor volunteered in various political campaigns and eventually served a term in the Arizona Senate. She became a judge in 1974, serving first in county court and later in the state Court of Appeals. She was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan – becoming the first woman ever to serve in that position. As a Supreme Court justice, her opinions generally favored conservative views, but she sometimes sided with the liberals and was known for her scholarly and careful research into matters before the court. Justice O’Connor retired in 2005 but remained active as an author, committee member, lecturer, and part-time judge. In 2013 she began to show early signs of dementia and retired completely from public life in 2018. She died on December 1, 2023, of a respiratory illness and complications from dementia.

The neighborhood

The cathedral stands at Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in the northwest quadrant of Washington. It crowns Mount St Alban, one of the highest points in the District of Columbia (which, at 377 feet, isn’t really saying much), and is visible (albeit dimly through the haze) from anywhere that has a view of the District. It is easily reached via the Metro Red Line (get off at the Tenleytown station) and by numerous bus routes.

The cast

The Bishop of Washington and the Dean of the Cathedral presided. They were assisted by the retired Bishop of Central Pennsylvania; the Director of Faith and the City Program at Columbia Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia; the cathedral’s Canon for Worship; the head cathedral verger; the cathedral verger; the assistant verger; a crucifer and two acolytes. The Hon. Joseph R. Biden Jr, President of the United States, and the Hon. John G. Roberts Jr, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (wearing suit and tie, not his judicial robe), as well as one of Justice O’Connor’s sons and her biographer, spoke tributes. Two of Justice O’Connor’s grandchildren read from scripture (New Revised Standard Version). The cathedral’s carillonneur, organist (assisted by a page turner), associate director of music, associate director of music for contemporary worship, the cathedral choir (seated antiphonally in the quire and vested in surplice and purple cassock, as were the organist and his page turner), and several vocal and instrumental soloists provided the music.

What was the name of the service?

In Celebration Of and In Thanksgiving For the Life of Sandra Day O’Connor.

How full was the building?

It looked to be completely full, including the transepts. The YouTube counter showed 8,759 views at its highest.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Attendance was by invitation only, so I watched the service via YouTube and received no personal greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self. Just as well, as my furniture had been shampooed that morning and my recliner was still too damp to sit in. As I recall from previous visits to the cathedral, the standard issue cathedral chairs found there are comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The carillonneur played several selections, as did the organist. The choir sang JS Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, accompanied by organ and oboe. Pallbearers wheeled Justice O’Connor’s casket in, covered by a white pall, behind the cross, verger and clergy as the cathedral’s bell was tolled.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Spoken as the casket was received at the west door: ‘With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our sister Sandra Day O’Connor for burial.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A very thorough service booklet was in the hands of the congregation and was also available for download.

What musical instruments were played?

Carillon, organ, oboe, trumpet.

Did anything distract you?

Trying to spot the Secret Service agents guarding the President and the Chief Justice – I think I did spot them, standing in one of the transepts. And call me naughty, but that page turner can turn pages for old Miss Amanda any time he wants to!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was basically the burial service from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is essentially a hymn sandwich. The entire service was conducted with almost unbelievable solemnity and dignity. One of the vergers quite properly verged all speakers, including President Biden, to and from the lectern. The music, old chestnuts for the most part (including ‘Rock of Ages’), was top rate – with one exception that I’ll note below. Especially moving was the final hymn, ‘America the Beautiful.’

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes. The Bishop of Washington, vested in rochet, chimere and pectoral cross, and wearing a white stole (no mitre, no crosier), spoke clearly and emotionally but looked down at her notes quite often, which led me to believe that she might be reading from them.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The Bishop of Washington, vested in rochet, chimere and pectoral cross, and wearing a white stole (no mitre, no crosier), spoke clearly and emotionally but looked down at her notes quite often, which led me to believe that she might be reading from them.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

When someone whom we love dies, we come face to face with the reality of death. We don’t know very much about the mystery of death, but we are sure in our knowledge of God’s love. An individual can make a difference – a single caring person can help determine the course of events. Justice O’Connor lived by that conviction and inspired it in others. She walked through doors previously reserved for men – and kept them open for others to follow! She was the realization of what generations of women before her had struggled to accomplish. But we all know that some of our accomplishments will not endure. Even so, we do all we can, and we live by faith. As we entrust Justice O’Connor to God, may our prayer be that we may all live by that same faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a church service done with such beauty and dignity. It was heavenly to witness once again.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Well – as good as the music was, I thought the tenor soloist in Handel’s ‘Every Valley Shall Be Exalted’ from The Messiah went way overboard with his dramatics.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I wasn’t actually there, and I can hardly look lost in my own apartment. The Bishop of Washington gave a final blessing (holding her crosier this time, it should be noted), and the casket was taken out much as it had been brought in as the organist struck up Widor’s Toccata from his 5th Symphony, Op. 42, No. 1. After the casket had exited, followed by the family, the congregation appeared to greet each other as they left the cathedral.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had already had lunch, and it wasn’t dinnertime yet. I had no snacks in the house. It was popcorn day down in the community room of my building, but I prefer to attend on alternate Tuesdays when they serve ice cream instead of popcorn.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — The Washington National Cathedral has never been exactly high church, but they do things so well there, and it’s always such a joy to attend their services, that I would certainly go again. I don’t see myself traveling to Washington, however, at least in the near future.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Most assuredly yes!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

So many things: the dignity of it all, that page turner (!), but unfortunately also the tenor soloist.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools