Monday, 8 April 2013

A Ceremonial rather than State Funeral for Lady Thatcher -- What is the Difference?

Following the announcement of the death of Baroness Thatcher earlier today, No. 10 Downing Street issued the following statement:

"Downing Street can announce that, with The Queen's consent, Lady Thatcher will receive a Ceremonial funeral with military honours. The service will be held at St. Paul's Cathedral. A wide and diverse range of people and groups with connections to Lady Thatcher will be invited. The service will be followed by a a private cremation. All the arrangements being put in place are in line with the wishes of Lady Thatcher's family. Further details will be published over the coming days."

The decision to accord Lady Thatcher a Ceremonial funeral, rather than a State funeral, has raised some eyebrows and caused some debate; however, the decision should not be too surprising. State funerals are reserved for the Sovereign and, on very rare occasions, exceptional public figures. Not even senior members of the royal family receive state funerals -- for example, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, despite her iconic status in Britain and the Commonwealth, received a traditional Royal Ceremonial funeral. Lord Mountbatten also received a ceremonial funeral. Due to her distinct status, Diana, Princess of Wales received a different kind of funeral -- at the time diplomatically described by a courtier as "a unique funeral for a unique person." The Queen Mother and Lady Thatcher were both involved in the planning of their ceremonial funerals and, as far as we are aware, being conscious of the distinction between the two types, neither of them expected to receive a state funeral. 

Lying in State in Westminster Hall prior to the
Royal Ceremonial Funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
There is some debate surrounding the precise number of individuals who have been accorded the great honour of receiving a state funeral. The organisation and planning of state funerals falls under the jurisdiction of the Earl Marshal, one of the United Kingdom's Great Officers of State and also the individual responsible for planning coronations (the office is an hereditary office held by the Dukes of Norfolk). The Earl Marshal is assisted in ceremonial planning by the heralds and pursuivants of the College of Arms.

In his classic book "Heraldry and the Heralds", Rodney Dennys, sometime Somerset Herald and an individual actively involved in the planning of Sir Winston Churchill's state funeral (known as "Operation Hope Not"), claims that only seven non-Sovereigns have received a state funeral:

Pitt the Elder
Pitt the Younger
The Viscount Nelson*
The Duke of Wellington
The Rt. Hon. William Gladstone
The Earl Roberts of Kandahar
The Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill

(*In truth, Lord Nelson received a Full Naval Funeral, but this is generally regarded as the equivalent of a state funeral)

However other lists claim that state funerals have been accorded to a larger number of public figures:

Sir Isaac Newton
The Viscount Palmerston
Lord Napier of Magdala
The Earl Haig
The Lord Carson

In an article on the subject, the excellent commentator Peter Oborne also cited Charles Darwin's funeral -- however I think this is incorrect. Nevertheless, whatever the true number, it is probably fair to argue that Lady Thatcher, by virtue of her impact on Britain and British society, is a figure at best equal to, and in truth far more significant than, some of those listed supra. Nevertheless, it is also true that Lady Thatcher remains a very divisive figure in British life. There can be little doubt that the decision to accord Lady Thatcher a ceremonial rather than a state funeral was in no small part due to a desire to avoid stirring up animosity amongst specific segments of society. 

As a giant of history who straddled the world stage, transforming Britain and changing the world, Lady Thatcher deserves a national funeral. She was, after all, not only Britain's first female Prime Minister but, arguably, also the greatest peacetime leader in British history. However, occasions of national mourning should not be marred by controversy or the risk of disruption by the malcontent. Consequently, the decision to accord Lady Thatcher a ceremonial, rather than a state, funeral is wise and correct. 

In an era of PR, the decision to style the funeral as "ceremonial" rather than "state" serves as a semantic salve that can soothe parts of the nation without having any practical consequence -- for, in reality, the distinction between the two kinds of funeral is so minimal as to be inconsequential. 

State Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in
St. Paul's Cathedral

A state funeral only differs from a ceremonial funeral in two or three ways:

1. In a state funeral the gun carriage carrying the coffin is pulled not by horses but by sailors from the Royal Navy. (This has been the case since the funeral of Queen Victoria, during which the horses bolted and slipped on the icy streets, causing the Royal Navy to step in).

2. A state funeral requires a vote or motion in the Houses of Parliament.

Other than these two, largely inconsequential, differences, there is nothing to distinguish a state funeral from a ceremonial funeral.*

(* It is also possible that there may be a difference in the number of rounds fired in the gun salute).

St. Mary Undercroft
As far as we know at this stage, Lady Thatcher's funeral will differ slightly from a normal ceremonial funeral as there will be no lying-in-state (traditionally this would take place in Westminster Hall). Instead, her funeral procession will commence in the beautiful Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft in the crypt of her true home, the Palace of Westminster. Her coffin will travel by hearse to the Church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand (the Central Church of the Royal Air Force). At this point the coffin will be transferred to a gun carriage drawn by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery. The King's Troop (so named by George VI, with permission to continue to bear the name granted by Queen Elizabeth II) traditionally perform this role in ceremonial funerals, most recently for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery with the
Gun Carriage used to carry the coffins of
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

The King's Troop will process with the coffin along the Strand and Fleet Street before arriving at St. Paul's Cathedral, the great church which was the scene for the greatest state funeral in living memory -- that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 (which, in a remarkable break with tradition, was attended by the Sovereign). 

The route will be lined with members of all three branches of the armed forces. Lady Thatcher regularly attended church services at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and so it is fitting that scarlet coated Chelsea Pensioners shall line the stairs leading up to the great west doors of St. Paul's. Although we are told that the funeral will feature full military honours, we do not know whether this will include a military fly past -- another feature traditionally associated with some ceremonial funerals.


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