What is a state funeral?

Courtesy of TheEconomist.com |By J.C. | Originally Posted 04.10.2013 | Published 10.01.2017

How does a state funeral differ from a ceremonial funeral?

THE death of Margaret Thatcher on April 8th brought an announcement about a detail of protocol that had (rather morbidly) been much debated in Britain in recent years. Within minutes of the news breaking, 10 Downing Street released a statement confirming that the former prime minister would receive a ceremonial funeral with military honours. Mrs Thatcher is generally believed to have changed Britain more than any prime minister since Winston Churchill, who received a full state funeral. So what will make her funeral, on April 17th, merely “ceremonial”—and how would a state funeral be different?

Many countries codify a form of public funeral that is granted to important public figures when they die. But the details vary from place to place. In some, it is bestowed by a vote in the legislature. In others, the head of state makes the decision. Often, such funerals are characterised by flags (draped on the coffin, or flown at half-mast from public buildings), a national day of mourning and a gun salute.

Britain is no different. State funerals tend to be reserved for the sovereign—but they can also be granted to “exceptionally distinguished” commoners by order of the monarch and following a vote in parliament to authorise the expense. Along with Churchill, other notable non-royals to be thus honoured include Isaac Newton, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Palmerston, who served as prime minister under Queen Victoria. Ceremonial funerals, by contrast, do not require a parliamentary vote and tend to be reserved for senior royals other than the sovereign—the Queen Mother and Princess Diana, for example. In look and feel, however, the two are very similar. A military procession brings the coffin to Westminster Hall (the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, erected by the Normans) for a three-day period of lying in state. Then the ceremony itself is held either at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s cathedral. The only visual difference between the two types is that the gun carriage used in the military procession preceding a state funeral is pulled by Royal Navy sailors.

For both sorts of funeral, the recipient is usually consulted before his or her death. Mrs Thatcher reportedly declined a state funeral (like her predecessor Benjamin Disraeli) and requested not to lie in state. Thrifty to the last, she is also said to have rejected a military fly-past on grounds of cost. So her ceremonial funeral will comprise a procession directly from the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in Westminster to St Paul’s—ceremonial, that is, unless a growing campaign (orchestrated by the Daily Mailnewspaper and some Conservative MPs) for a state funeral gets its way between now and next Wednesday.

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