Special Report

State Funerals and Christendom

Will Margaret Thatcher's in St. Paul's be the last in a long civilized line?

By 4.23.13

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Supposedly Christendom is over, as nearly everyone in the West ostensibly becomes a religiously indifferent "none." But this reality has yet to affect state funerals, most wonderfully in Margaret Thatcher's last week in a Britain where few are regular churchgoers.

The service at St. Paul's Cathedral was magnificent although not ostentatious, fitting for the middle class grocer's daughter who rose to power and reshaped a nation by her own determination. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who had been a contender for Archbishop of Canterbury and was a friend to the Thatchers, delivered a superb eulogy that cited her Methodist roots and her empathetic humanity even amid political adversity. In recognition of her girlhood Methodism, the choir sang Charles Wesley's "Love Divine, All Love's Excelling." There was also "I Vow to Thee My Country," set to music by Gustav Holst, and whose words aptly described Thatcher's understanding of duty to nation and more supremely to God.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron read Scripture, and the other living former prime ministers were there. So too were a few recognizable U.S. statesmen, including a very roly-poly Henry Kissinger, plus Dick Cheney. The Queen and Prince Phillip as always lent dignity by their presence, now completing a remarkably nearly flawless 60 years on the global stage. There are now few people alive who can recall a time when Elizabeth was not in Buckingham Palace.

Thatcher's funeral recalled her own quiet but prominent role in Ronald Reagan's funeral 9 years ago. She sat in National Cathedral beneath her wide black hat, while her eulogy, pre-recorded due to health concerns, was played for the congregation and world. She robustly recalled the victories of her American political partner, especially over the Kremlin's "dark corridors," even as Mikhail Gorbachev supinely sat beside her in the church. Only Thatcher could have achieved such a feat with grace.

Earlier at the Capitol Rotunda before Reagan's casket, former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan had stood behind Thatcher, likening the experience to standing behind Winston Churchill at FDR's funeral (Churchill actually didn't attend). When a military honor guard entered the Rotunda, Thatcher regally turned about towards Noonan to extol the importance of military strength in defense of free societies. Very Churchillian. Touchingly, Thatcher, whose health was not great, flew across the continent with the Reagan family to attend the final service for her friend in California. Reputedly she had brought a special hat box for her funeral headgear.

Reagan's funeral in many ways exceeded Thatcher's. As the loquacious Chris Matthews observed of the congregation at National Cathedral, it resembled the Final Judgement, with everybody, the good and the bad, all assembled to await their fate. The former Presidents, including two of Reagan's political adversaries, with their First Ladies were there. So too were former world leaders, besides Thatcher and Gorbachev, such as Germany's Helmut Kohl, Canada's Brian Mulroney and Japan's Yasuhiro Nakasone, each of whom was a key Reagan partner in the Cold War. The only imperfection of Reagan's funeral was the absence of Billy Graham, whose health precluded attendance. In his memoir, Graham, who conducted funerals for Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, cites Reagan as his closest presidential friend, and no doubt a eulogy from him would have been poignant.

Music at Reagan's funeral included appropriately "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Amazing Grace." A special composition, "Mansions of The Lord," was set to stirring music from Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers. Reagan would have approved.

A former Reagan aide recounted that when Reagan attended Dwight Eisenhower's 1969 funeral at National Cathedral, he was seated behind French President Charles de Gaulle, whose own aide could be seen writing Reagan's name down for De Gaulle's benefit, prompting the General to turn around for a long stare at the then California governor. Afterwards De Gaulle reportedly made a point of seeking out Reagan for a silent handshake full of "vibes." The Reagan aide speculated that De Gaulle, who had faced down leftist students trying to overthrow his regime the year before, may have respected Reagan's own publicized confrontations with California student radicals. A photo of the Eisenhower funeral does not show Reagan anywhere behind De Gaulle, but surely the story is too good not to be true in some context.

At Ike's funeral, the towering and imposing De Gaulle was prominent, paying homage to his old colleague from World War II. He was in the front row at the National Cathedral along with the Nixons and the Shah of Iran. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines were just behind. De Gaulle was no less prominent at JFK's funeral six years earlier, striding up Connecticut Avenue from the White House towards St. Matthew’s Cathedral. And in 1965, he again loomed over all others at Winston Churchill's London funeral, also at St. Paul's Cathedral, and the last great public funeral for a British premier until Thatcher’s. Like many U.S. presidential funerals, Churchill's also featured the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." When De Gaulle died, an admiring Nixon attended his at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. French President Georges Pompidou, a protégé to De Gaulle as Nixon was to Eisenhower, greeted Nixon as a fellow "orphan."

As ex-president, Nixon courageously attended the Shah of Iran's lonely funeral in Cairo, alongside Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was virtually the only head of state who had not shunned the deposed Iranian leader. Two years later, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter all attended Sadat's funeral, itself somewhat courageous given the unsteady security after Sadat's assassination. Funerals are not departures from human nature. Gerald Ford on the flight to Cairo rued Nixon's characteristic political manipulations even then, according to one report, irenically regretting having pardoned the "son of a bitch."

But Nixon gained sympathy from even his worst critics at his wife Pat's funeral, where Nixon convulsively wept at her grave. When he died a year later, his surviving younger brother wept no less intensely. Eisenhower's son, a retired general whose son is married to Nixon's daughter, sat stoically, looking almost just like his father. As always, Billy Graham lent spiritual gravitas to both Nixon funerals. Ford's 2006 funeral, unlike Nixon's, was at National Cathedral, where Henry Kissinger delivered an emotional eulogy, revealing that he is human after all. At a later service at the Ford Library in Grand Rapids, Jimmy Carter paid homage to the man he defeated in 1976, citing their common Christian faith, and illustrating a graceful continuity in American politics.

Perhaps future state funerals for a new generation of politicians will be less solemn, less Christian, and exemplify a new age of esoteric spirituality. But so far, in recent years, they have been reassuringly traditional, relying on liturgy rather than self-expression, citing themes of divine grace and redemption, at least briefly reminding a confused civilization of its spiritual roots.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.