George H.W. Bush's funeral was already a solemn occasion, but in the front row of presidents and first ladies past and present, you could cut the tension with a knife.

The awkwardness was evident in the expressions of the Obamas, Clintons and Trumps as they were forced to sit together for the former president's funeral service.

Barack and Michelle Obama had been smiling and chatting easily with Bill and Hillary Clinton when Donald and Melania Trump joined them — and the room froze.

Obama took the lead in shaking hands with the Trumps, before a grim-faced Michelle Obama followed suit.

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It is well known that there is no love lost between the current and previous first couple, with Michelle Obama recently writing in her book Becoming that she would "never forgive" Trump for putting her family's safety at risk by stoking the "birther" conspiracy theory that her husband was born outside the United States.

Trump fired back that he would never forgive Barack Obama "for what he did to our US military".

Bill Clinton shook Melania Trump's hand but Hillary Clinton - Trump's former presidential rival and bitter enemy - simply nodded in their direction, before turning her gaze to stare fixedly ahead.

The only person who looked even vaguely comfortable was former president Jimmy Carter, at the farthest end of the group.

Washington procession

A military band played Hail to the Chief as the casket of the 41st president was carried down the US Capitol steps in a solemn procession, with members of the Bush family watching and a cannon salute. His son, former President George W. Bush, placed his hand over his heart. Military pallbearers carried the casket up the steps to the cathedral.

The hearse had been driven in a motorcade to the Washington National Cathedral ceremony, slowing in front of the White House. Bush's route was lined with people much of the way, bundled in winter hats and taking photos.

Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush arrive at a State Funeral for former President George H.W. Bush. Photo / AP
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush arrive at a State Funeral for former President George H.W. Bush. Photo / AP

A military color guard stood at attention as the hearse arrived.

Wednesday's ceremonies capped three days of remembrance in the nation's capital by dignitaries and ordinary citizens as they honoured the Republican president who oversaw the post-Cold War world transition and led a successful Gulf War, only to lose re-election in a generational shift to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

The four living ex-presidents all came — among them, George W. Bush who will eulogise his father — and President Donald Trump will attend but is not scheduled to speak. Also attending: one king (Jordan), one queen (Jordan), two princes (Britain, Bahrain), Germany's chancellor and Poland's president, among representatives of more than a dozen countries.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that he was "looking forward to being with the Bush family," calling the day "a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life." Trump and his wife took their seats after the others, briefly greeting the Obamas seated next to them.

Also expected in the invitation-only crowd: Mike Lovejoy, a Kennebunkport electrician and fix-it man who has worked at Bush's Maine summer estate since 1990 and says he was shocked and heartened to be asked to come.

On Tuesday, soldiers, citizens in wheelchairs and long lines of others on foot wound through the Capitol Rotunda to view Bush's casket and honor a president whose legacy included World War military service and a landmark law affirming the rights of the disabled. Former Sen. Bob Dole, a compatriot in war, peace and political struggle, steadied himself out of his wheelchair and saluted his old friend and one-time rival.

After the national funeral service at the cathedral, Bush's remains will be returned to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years who died in April, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukaemia in 1953 at age 3.

Trump ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days.

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a military honour guard. Photo / AP
The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a military honour guard. Photo / AP

As at notable moments in his life, Bush brought together Republicans and Democrats in his death, and not only the VIPs.

Members of the public who never voted for the man waited in the same long lines as the rest, attesting that Bush possessed the dignity and grace that deserved to be remembered by their presence on a cold overcast day in the capital.

"I'm just here to pay my respects," said Jane Hernandez, a retired physician in the heavily Democratic city and suburbs. "I wasn't the biggest fan of his presidency, but all in all he was a good, sincere guy doing a really hard job as best he could."

Bush's service dog, Sully, was taken to the viewing, too — his main service these last months since Barbara Bush's death in April being to rest his head on her husband's lap. Service dogs are trained to do that.

The CIA also honoured Bush, the only spy chief to become president, as three agency directors past and present joined the public in the viewing.

In the midst of the period of mourning, first lady Melania Trump gave Laura Bush, one of her predecessors, a tour of holiday decorations at the White House, a "sweet visit during this somber week," as Mrs. Bush's Instagram account put it. And the Trumps visited members of the Bush family at the Blair House presidential guesthouse, where they are staying. Former President George W. Bush and his wife greeted the Trumps outside before everyone went in for the private, 20-minute visit.

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honour guard from the US Capitol in Washington. Photo / AP
The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honour guard from the US Capitol in Washington. Photo / AP

Although Trump will attend Bush's service, he is not among the eulogists. They are, in addition to Bush's eldest son, Alan Simpson, the former senator and acerbic wit from Wyoming; Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister who also gave a eulogy for Ronald Reagan; and presidential historian Jon Meacham.

People lined up before dawn to pay respects to the 41st president, a son and father of privilege now celebrated by everyday citizens for his common courtesies and depth of experience.

"He was so qualified, and I think he was just a decent man," said Sharon Terry, touring Washington with friends from an Indianapolis garden club. Said her friend Sue Miller, also in line for the viewing: "I actually think I underestimated him when he was in office. My opinion of him went up seeing how he conducted himself as a statesman afterward."

Fred Curry, one of the few African-Americans in line, is a registered Democrat from Hyattsville, Maryland, who voted for Bush in 1988, the election won by the one-term president. "Honestly I just liked him," he said. "He seemed like a sincere and decent man and you couldn't argue with his qualifications."

Inside the Capitol, Sully, the 2-year-old Labrador retriever assigned to Bush, sat by the casket in the company of people who came to commemorate Bush's signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that, among its many provisions, required businesses that prohibit pets to give access to service dogs.

Sully, former President George H.W. Bush's service dog, pays his respect to President Bush. Photo / AP
Sully, former President George H.W. Bush's service dog, pays his respect to President Bush. Photo / AP

"After Mrs. Bush's death, general companionship was a big part of Sully's job," John Miller, president and CEO of America's VetDogs, said in a phone interview. "One of the things that I think was important to the president was the rest command, where Sully would rest his head on the president's lap."

The law was just one point of intersection for Bush and Dole, now 95, who was one of its leading advocates in the Senate.

They were fellow World War II veterans, Republican Party leaders, fierce rivals for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination won by Bush ("Stop lying about my record," Dole snapped at Bush) and skilled negotiators. Dole, an Army veteran hit by German machine gunfire in Italy, has gone through life with a disabled right arm. Bush, a Navy pilot, survived a bail-out from his stricken aircraft over the Pacific and an earlier crash landing.

On Tuesday, Dole was helped out of his wheelchair by an aide, slowly steadied himself and saluted Bush with his left hand, his chin quivering.

Dignitaries had come forward on Monday, too, to honor the Texan whose service to his country extended three quarters of a century, from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and relief for people displaced by natural disaster. Bush, 94, died Friday.

Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter greet former President Bill Clinton and as his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo / AP
Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter greet former President Bill Clinton and as his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo / AP

Trump's relationship with the Bush family has been tense. The current president mocked the elder Bush for his "thousand points of light" call to volunteerism, challenged his son's legacy as president and trounced "low-energy" Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential primaries en route to office. The late President Bush called Trump a "blowhard."

Those insults have been set aside, but the list of funeral service speakers marked the first time since Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973 that a sitting president was not tapped to eulogise a late president. (Clinton did so for Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush eulogised Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.)

Bush's death reduces membership in the ex-presidents' club to four: Jimmy Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.