April 18, 2013

Lessons from the Thatcher funeral

When planning a funeral, there are important lessons that can be learned from the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

1.  Funerals should not be a celebration of the life of the deceased.  That's the important function of the after-party or memorial when people get together to share stories of the deceased and to laugh and cry together.    Funerals should be a ritual of well-chosen words and hymns that by their very unoriginality bring order to troubling feelings and awaken a sense of mortality in all present.    By remembering that we all will die, we become more alive. 

2.  Choose beautiful music to express what can not be said.

Christopher Howes Margaret Thatcher's funeral: a miraculous pairing of words and music

The nation discovered its own feelings through the beautifully judged ceremonial of Lady Thatcher’s funeral.

For the guests at St Paul’s there were lines from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” to contemplate while they waited. “A people without history is not redeemed from time,” they read. “In a secluded chapel, / History is now and England.”  If not in a secluded chapel, but in a cathedral so airy that a crowd of 2,000 merely carpeted its pavement, history was present, under every sight and sound.

This funeral was not a celebration of life, not even a memorial. The service chosen by Lady Thatcher did not feature quirky personal favorites. Many people think they are being original by choosing Stairway to Heaven or Bat Out of Hell for their own funerals. It was unoriginal, and in that lay its power. It was not personalized, but leant on the Book of Common Prayer and well-thumbed hymn books.

For that very reason it was relevant to all  those in St Paul’s and all who found time to watch on television. From the moment her coffin was met at St Clement Danes with the words, “We who are baptised in the death of Christ,” the topic was something universal: death. This was not divisive but, in the words of the Bishop of London, “the common destiny of all human beings”. It was, yesterday, as if the millions watching were following a stage tragedy. The difference was that this was a true story, and the tragic flaw of the heroine was not a moral failing but mortality itself.

The Church of England service emphasized two things: the reality of death, with no demurring, and the hope of resurrection. “The days of man are but grass,” read Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin. “For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone.” Left at that, it would be no more than Hadrian’s sad farewell to the soul: “Animula, vagula, blandula.” But it was not left at that. From deep, dim waters it strove upwards towards the light.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” the Prime Minister read from the Gospel of St John. “I go to prepare a place for you.” Those were words of Jesus, and, in the passage read, Thomas usefully responded, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest.” Nothing could rub in more sorely that we cannot see beyond the dark and narrow gates of death.

Even so, the words read out may have made an uncertain impression. We are not used to listening. A sermon is a thing to be shunned, though the Bishop of London summed up proceedings as well as could be done in one sentence: “The natural cycle leads inevitably to decay, but the dominant note of a Christian funeral service, after the sorrow and the memories, is hope.”

For all the feebleness of fleeting words to capture the attention, something else penetrates the leathery coating of the unexercized heart – music. That was surely what brought a tear to the eye of anyone capable of weeping. It takes different people in different ways. Vaughan Williams’s setting for Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim brought out its defiance: “Though he with giants fight: / He will make good his right / To be a pilgrim.” Like “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate”), its defiance is clear, but can it be true? If we fight a giant, won’t the giant win?

So for me, the dart that pierced the carapace was Fauré’s setting of In Paradisum. This Latin antiphon is associated with the carrying of the corpse to the grave. Fauré’s gentle music let the words speak: “Et cum Lazaro quondam paupere / aeternam habeas requiem.” With Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest. The Lazarus in question is the man in the parable who lay, full of sores, at the rich man’s gate.

The point is not political, but rather that, if we are lucky, we will fare as well as a loathsome beggar, who was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. If all careers end in failure, all lives end in absolute poverty. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither,” said Job. The point is obvious, which is why it needed to be said at a funeral, where things are spoken that are impossible to say informally between mourning members of a family.

Posted by Jill Fallon at April 18, 2013 9:33 AM | Permalink