Pomp and circumstance for Thatcher funeral

Glory in death: Egyptian burial, Halicarnassus mausoleum, Mao’s embalmed body, Churchill’s funeral.

London’s streets fall silent today for the long procession, religious service and eulogies for Margaret Thatcher. Why do we mark the death of some individuals with such ceremony?

Her death certificate describes her as ‘Stateswoman (retired)’. A simple but impressive phrase to evoke a woman for whom most of central London will be closed today, as dignitaries from around the world, along with family and friends, gather to pay their respects.

Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will silence the bongs of Big Ben, cause Prime Minister’s Questions to be suspended and involve the biggest security operation since last summer’s Olympic Games. The Queen will be present to lead the mourning, while carefully chosen members of the armed services will escort the procession and music and a gun salute.

These arrangements have been drawn up with care. A full state funeral like that held to Britain’s wartime leader Churchill would have been highly controversial, but sufficient ceremony is seen as appropriate to mark the significance of the UK’s first – and so far only – female head of government, who won three general elections during the 1980s before being ejected from Downing Street by her own Conservative Party.

Critics of Thatcher’s long period of power, and of her lasting effect on the country she governed, have protested: even after death, they consider her an enemy, and have argued that disrupting parliament for the former leader of one political party is an affront to democracy.

Others, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the two Labour prime ministers who came after her, will attend the ceremony. It emerged yesterday that they had approved the plans for this funeral, which were drawn up while she was in her 70s, as ‘a state funeral in all but name’.

Since ancient times, humanity has accorded to its leaders rare privileges after death as well as in life: some Ancient Egyptian accounts claim Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s mourning and funeral lasted 70 days. Both Egypt’s pyramids and the tomb of the king at Halicarnassus were among the seven wonders of the ancient world, demonstrating that honours paid to a dead ruler have always been deemed worthy of enormous effort and expense.

And during the 20th Century, totalitarian regimes determined to carry on in the spirit of dead leaders have preserved their bodies in open caskets as secular shrines to various political ideologies.

Praise or bury?

‘Exactly!’ cry opponents of the elaborate funeral for Baroness Thatcher. All this lavish ceremony is a way of turning a politician into some sort of saint: the unhealthy fawning stifles real debate about her successes and failures. That, they argue, prevents Britain from leaving the past behind.

But others are determined to prove that Britain should demonstrate its flair for ‘pomp and circumstance’ when someone so important in the life of the nation dies. This is not a public outpouring of grief, but a way to show respect for a national leader who made a global impact.

You Decide

  1. Is Margaret Thatcher’s funeral appropriate to her role and position in recent history?
  2. ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.’ Do you agree with Mark Anthony, in Shakespeare’sJulius Caesar?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have achieved all your career dreams, and can plan your own funeral or memorial service. Celebrate your achievements.
  2. Read some of the obituaries of Margaret Thatcher: compose a balanced three minute speech about her life, celebrating her achievements and acknowledging criticisms of her legacy.

Some People Say...

“Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.’Walt Whitman”

What do you think?

Q & A

But I don’t feel affected by her death.
Are you sure? If you are female Thatcher changed perceptions about what women can achieve in politics. And if you live in the UK, the chances are that period of recent history had an effect on your family: why not research it or ask your relatives for their views?
I hope they don’t wait till I’m dead to praise me.
Good point. Some careers advisors or counselling experts ask people to imagine what they would like said at their own funeral – then live their life to make those achievements or good qualities a reality. Have a go!

Word Watch

Big Ben
The famous bell inside St Stephen’s tower at the House of Commons. It was last deliberately silenced in 1965 for Winston Churchill. As leader of the coalition formed to govern during WWII he received a full state funeral. During the 1970s, the bongs were silenced when the clock broke down.
St Paul’s
This cathedral in the City of London was built around 1700 by Sir Christopher Wren on the site of three previous churches, the last of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It has been the setting for many commemorative occasions in British national life.
During the 1980s
The Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher won in 1979, 1983 and 1987.
In her 70s
Baroness Thatcher died at the age of 87, but the plans for marking her death were planned and approved during the Blair and Brown premierships (1997-2010).
Ejected
In 1990, MPs in the Conservative Party lost faith in Thatcher’s leadership and held an internal election which forced her resignation. John Major was chosen as leader in her place, and moved into Number 10 Downing Street without being elected by the country. He went on to narrowly win the 1992 general election.
Halicarnassus
This enormous and elaborate tomb, built around 350 BC for King Mausolus at Halicarnassus in modern Turkey, has given us the word mausoleum.

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