State funerals, ceremonial funerals, and Margaret Thatcher

What's the difference between the ceremonial funeral that will be held for the late prime minister and the state funeral her supporters wanted for her?

Leon Neal/AP
The coffin of British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rests in the Crypt Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament in London on Tuesday. Mrs. Thatcher's funeral will be held at St. Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday.

Before dawn Monday morning, several hundred British soldiers gathered along the dark streets of central London to escort an empty casket to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The somber early morning march was a dress rehearsal for the Wednesday funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an elaborate and expensive ceremony that has touched off new debate about how the country should eulogize one of its most divisive leaders.

Immediately following her death last Monday, supporters began to clamor for Mrs. Thatcher to be afforded a so-called state funeral: an elaborate ceremony generally reserved for the country’s monarchs. 

Thatcher wouldn’t have been the first modern prime minister afforded such an honor – Winston Churchill and the major prime ministers of the late 19th century all had them – but it would have been a ritzy departure from the ceremonies celebrating most of her predecessors.

Thatcher herself foresaw the controversy her memorial might inspire, however, and made clear before she died that she did not want a state funeral. So instead she will be commemorated Wednesday with a “ceremonial funeral” – one notch lower on the hierarchy of British official burials.

Here’s what you need to know about the Iron Lady's funeral. 

What is the difference between a ceremonial funeral and a full state funeral?

Practically speaking, almost nothing. Both state and ceremonial funerals are elaborate, expensive affairs (Thatcher's will cost an estimated 10 million pounds, or $15 million) involving a military procession and a funeral at one of London’s eminent old chapels. 

Thatcher’s casket will follow a winding route through central London – flanked by about 700 military personnel – beginning at the Palace of Westminster, continuing on to the Royal Air Force chapel, St. Clement Danes, and ending at St. Paul’s Cathedral. (You can see a minute-by-minute breakdown of the events here.)

It’s the same route followed by Winston Churchill’s casket in his state funeral, with a very similar supporting cast. So what gave Churchill’s ceremony the coveted “state” label? Two things.

First, the gun carriage containing Mr. Churchill’s coffin was drawn by Royal Navy sailors, while Thatcher’s will be drawn by horses.

Second, and perhaps more essentially, a state funeral requires parliamentary approval, while a ceremonial funeral requires only the consent of the monarch. Before her death, Thatcher nixed the idea of a state funeral for herself in large part because of the divisive debate its approval was likely to stir up in Parliament, the Guardian reported last week.

What prime ministers have had state funerals?

Britain’s only 20th century prime minister to receive the honor was Winston Churchill, buried January 31, 1965. The BBC described the elaborate pomp and circumstance of that day.

The procession took that most ancient road that runs from the Palace of Westminster to the steps of the cathedral of St Paul. It is a road that half the history of England seems to have taken, on its way to a crowning or to a public and ignoble death, to murder or be murdered, to raise revolt, to seek a fortune, or to be buried. The route was lined with young soldiers, their heads bowed over their automatic rifles in ceremonious grief. The bands played old and slow tunes. The drums were draped in black. The staffs of the drum-majors were veiled. They moved slowly, steadily, at a curiously inexorable pace, and it looked as if nothing could ever stop them. The great crowd watched with an eloquent and absolute silence.

Before Churchill, three other prime ministers received state funeral honors in modern times: the Duke of Wellington in 1852, Viscount Palmerston in 1865, and William Gladstone in 1898. But the practice largely fell out of service in the 20th century.

What about ceremonial funerals? How common are those?

They're often given to important royals and there have been two in the past decade and a half. Princess Diana had one when she died suddenly in a car crash in 1997, as did Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002. Both of those ceremonies took place in Westminster Abbey.

So what kind of funerals do prime ministers usually have?

That's a matter of individual choice. Most have opted for a ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson had one in 1995, and Edward Heath in 2005.

But the family of Harold Macmillan, Conservative Party prime minister from 1957 to 1963, held a private funeral in January 1987 at a church in the village of Horsted Keynes where he often worshiped. Just 200 people – Thatcher among them – attended.

By any estimation, Thatcher’s sendoff will be a slightly more audacious affair. 

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