— Anglican hymn by John Bunyan, 1684
Fifty years ago, on the 28th of January, 1965, a hymn by the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress began the funeral service for Sir Winston Churchill. While it was perhaps the twentieth century’s grandest farewell, the news on modern funerals is as telling as forlorn.
At Britain’s first state funeral for a commoner since 1914 and the last until that of Margaret, Lady Thatcher, in Saint Paul’s Cathedral the great man’s remains lay in state for three days, by command of Her Majesty the Queen. Then the service began, broadcast live over much of the world; attended by the most heads of state since President Kennedy was laid to rest in 1963; including among the mourners Winston Churchill’s old comrade-in-arms for the liberation of the Free World, former General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the body arrived, soldiers in dress uniforms lined the streets. Days later, as his coffin moved up the River Thames toward the final resting place, mechanical cranes dipped their arms in tribute as the cannons roared farewell to a fallen hero. You may read the full service, and watch a brief but moving 1965 documentary.
The Observer newspaper recalled: “It was beautiful in the way that great works of art are beautiful. It obeyed secret rules.”
Those secrets were conveyed by every tradition that the great man’s ancient homeland could muster: in the horse-drawn caisson bearing his coffin as troops lined the route; in the glory of Sir Christopher Wren’s mighty cathedral that arose from the ashes of London’s Great Fire of 1666, that alone in an empty fastness survived the bombs that fell almost three centuries later; in the Christian service itself; in the exhaustive number of establishment institutions represented; in the grandeur and the conscious solemnity; in the sacred music carefully chosen to reflect his many secular triumphs; in the noble lords and ladies, the bishops and the generals; in the ceremonial finery worn by the mourners packed inside of the cathedral; and among the silent throngs outside.
Many layers deep they lined the streets of London in respect, for there was no room left within. They dressed with care in sombre funereal clothes or, had they none, the black armbands of mourning. Some ancient few in faded uniforms, frail and rheumy-eyed, had served in the Boer War alongside of him, and more in the later trenches of the Dardanelles, Verdun, or the Somme. Many, maybe most, recalled his leadership during the Second World War only twenty years before; and many Londoners had lived beside him through the firebombs of the Blitz. Many but not all—for there too stood the little ones, decorous and dressed as if for church; the children and grandchildren carefully told what they watched and why, mindful of their part in the great farewell.
Faraway my brother and I watched the tiny colourless screen; kept home from school for the funeral of one whom we already knew; whom our father described as perhaps “the greatest man of your lifetimes.” Worldwide, especially in the Commonwealth nations, in Africa, India, Pakistan and Australia, Canada and New Zealand, in Britain’s wartime allies America and France, millions of other children did the same. Greying after half a century, many of us remember as if it were yesterday.
It is not by happenstance that the warrior’s funeral began with a paean to Christian pilgrimage. It could have been the martial Battle Hymn of the Republic sung just afterwards; but the ceremonial conclusion shows us why. An American preacher noted recently: “At Churchill’s direction, at the close of the service, a bugler positioned high up in the dome sounded ‘Taps:’ ‘Day is done, gone the sun’…but then immediately after, another bugler sounded ‘Reveille:’ ‘It’s time to get up in the morning!’ This was Winston Churchill’s testimony that at the end of our lives, the last note will not be ‘Taps,’ but ‘Reveille!'”
More than testament to a great statesman’s abiding faith, Sir Winston’s buglers intentionally touched upon a point in common across the ceremony’s every piece of liturgy, art, and music, every tradition and every secret rule. From the cathedral dome supplanted by the Cross of Christ, to the sacred iconography within, to the service, to the medieval orders displayed upon the breasts of many mourners, to the uniforms of the military guard or their chivalrous antecedents, to the crowds and over their deep solemnity hung the certainty of death on earth, the hope of Resurrection to come and the Word of God that bears the Promise of Everlasting Life.
The promise was 2,000 years old, some prayers only slightly newer, the majesty medieval, the cathedral from the cusp of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the hymn from a Puritan in Restoration England, and the pageantry often Victorian; but the coming together was modern and utterly intentional. More than a mere funeral, it was a pledge renewed; a commitment undertaken once more; simultaneously international, national, and personal; held in common across Christendom, among the mourners and their countless generations of dead, and their Maker Himself.
The pledge is ever renewed in a solemn ceremony, a celebration, and an enduring myth shared by our greatest state funerals. While ostensibly glorifying the deceased, they also humble him before the vast breadth of history and across the deeps of culture and tradition, but yet clutch him close within the intimacy of Heaven and Earth. Were we ancient pagans, and were our state funerals Roman Triumphs, the parade would have conveyed temporal glory while the slave, behind the hero in the chariot, encouraged humility in whispers of mortality. In either case no mortal looks quite so big afterwards, despite our best efforts to revere and to commemorate; and it is intentionally so.
We saw it in 1989, at the funeral of the last Habsburg empress; the widow of The Blessed Karl of Austria, now in death ennobled The Servant of God Zita. She had walked behind the same black coach in 1916 for the funeral of Franz Josef, Emperor and King, but now she lay within. By ancient family tradition her pallbearers demanded access into the imperial crypt; behind barred doors the Capuchin brothers asked who sought entry and the reply listed her many titles. The holy men answered that they knew her not. Only on the third attempt was her body admitted, when introduced merely as the humble “Zita, a mortal sinner.” Unsurpassed by other European royal families in consistent piety and tradition revered, they share a venerable sense of Christian humility that survives amid the trappings of our every state funeral. Together Men are greater than any mortal Man; while at God’s touch we are at first humbled and only then exalted, as was His Son made Man.
Across Christendom for many centuries, in humble ways our own more common funerals sought the same: introducing faith amid grief, formal dignity amid fond memory, humility amid achievement, true permanence amid one man’s fleeting glory. Celebrating a human life, our funerals demonstrated love, balanced loss against hope, united the present with the past, and placed all in perspective beneath the canopy of tradition. In that way they offered solace to the faithful and sceptical alike, for ours is not the first generation to contain doubters.
Recently we were told of a new type of hymn, the most popular at modern British funerals. One of its verses proclaims:
Life’s a piece of sh–, when you look at it;
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true;
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughin’ as you go;
Just remember that the last laugh is on you,
And…Always look on the bright side of life…
It comes, of course, from Monty Python’s film Life of Brian. while funny in parts, the 1979 movie mocks the life of Christ: its authors sought to dispel accusations of blasphemy by pleading mistaken identity, but failed to convince. The final scene shows two men crucified beside the hero, all singing the chirpy ditty quoted above. Then further from devout, I still felt shame having laughed at even those comic moments that contained no impiety.
A survey of British morticians identified the most popular twenty pieces of music played across 30,000 recent funerals. The top-placed Python song rose from third three years ago. Christian hymns The Lord is My Shepherd and Abide with Me lagged behind in weak second and third places respectively. Altogether, reported BBC, “only nine songs in the top 20 choices were traditional or classical pieces” including secular operatic aria.
Fourth came the theme from the soccer broadcast Match of the Day; fifth was Frank Sinatra’s I Did it My Way; later, two more commemorated cricket and rugby programmes; two were the theme songs of sit-coms and one for a soap opera. Of the nine that were religious and/or classical, all seemed purely instrumental apart from the aforementioned two and the Anglican hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. The latter, ignoring redemption completely, says that God made animals, wildflowers, and whatnot.
“Hymns or classics” are declining faster than all other musical genres, said the morticians, who forbade some requests on the grounds of “taste or inappropriate language,” including John Lennon’s Imagine and Meatball’s Bat out of Hell, but not Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever, which counted among the top ten.
One mortician tried to explain the Python song: “We wonder if it’s the people who were young in the swinging sixties, who are now in their 70s and 80s, and if that’s informing this trend. Monty Python, for example, is of a certain age.” More like their 60s and 70s, actually, but we might look deeper.
One doubts that most people choose music for their own funerals as Sir Winston did; hence it must be selected by survivors, who are more likely to be greying Python fans in their 60s or 70s. Next, unless they hated the deceased, did they really think that Dad’s or Mom’s or dear Aunt Marie’s years among them were “a piece of sh—?” Truly? One imagines not. Hence, in part, we may be listening to a startlingly vulgar variation on the English fear of sentiment.
Understatement may have always been a hallmark of British aristocracy; but, given the sentimentality of the Victorian common folk, it probably spread after the Great War in the thoughtful diminution of one’s suffering. “Had a spot of bother in the trenches,” mumbled the legless. It continued, only decades later, downplaying the shared hardship of the Blitz: “’Erbert an’ me, we didn’t loik our old ‘ouse much anyway, ‘an it’s chummier livin’ wiv’ the neighbours down the shelter!” Not for the English any show of selfish grief, even at funerals; no Italianate bawling or, worse still, the caterwauling of professional mourners.
What changed was the loss of solemnity. It survives in patriotic events organised by officialdom where it is loved by all; for example in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee of 2012, watched nationwide on television, commemorated in Union Flags draped from mansions and council-houses alike, and in spontaneous block parties across the realm. But no longer in funerals it seems, or less and less.
The death of solemnity stems, partly, from loss of faith. The fear, or resolve, of the grave’s finality neuters ancient hymns or makes them stink of hypocrisy; leaving little but the unsatisfactory, ninth-place, show-tune You’ll Never Walk Alone, or the even less comforting Python song. Hymns replaced with television themes reflect a loss of shared religious values across an atomized culture, replaced by me and mine when nothing bigger survives. But there is more besides.
Note with care the respectful attire of Winston Churchill’s common mourners. Even in recent times thus people dressed for funerals, or for anything important such as a photographic portrait. It partly reflected a debt paid to the deceased and the living community, and/or to future generations who would look back and judge. Solemnity, entailing a physical show of respect, is now measured by different criteria; as something to be feared, a display of presumed superiority, as a calculated affront. But that leaden coin has an even uglier reverse.
C. S. Lewis wrote a 1959 coda to his 1942 The Screwtape Letters, in which the grand old daemon proposed a toast before young graduates of the Tempters Training College. He described a process leading to mortal damnation; beginning with democratic mechanisms cleverly misdefined as existential equality; leading to one’s suspicion of,
Every mere difference…being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: ‘Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I—it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs—thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox—he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.’
Envy, said the daemon, achieved what every Tyrant wanted: “Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.”
Education would thus ensure that “dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be ‘undemocratic.’” It is a modern argument made in government schools throughout the land; and, with minor adjustments, against the private education of the surviving upper-middle and upper classes that still seem to believe that they, and their children, always need improvement.
C.S. Lewis published it whilst Winston Churchill had close on six years left to live. One wonders if the Nobel Laureate author and democratic statesman’s funereal call to quality, valour and faith was inspired by that, or by similar concerns.
Ultimately, said Screwtape, “the ‘democratic spirit’ (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.”
Clear as glass, there are Levellers and those afraid of becoming their victims. That process may not wholly describe the decline of solemn and spiritually uplifting music at British funerals. But fifty years on, across the West, it may account for a shortage of Winston Churchills.
The best advice, perhaps the only advice, comes again from Bunyan who inspired Sir Winston Churchill in a different kind of Darkest Hour, imposed from without instead of wrought from within:
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
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