Reflections on a Royal funeral

Reflections on a Royal funeral
2021-04-28

We asked a few members of the team to share ‘something that struck you’ about what they saw in the media of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. 

Jennie Riley – Choice and Personalisation

I didn’t commit to the full two and a half hours of BBC coverage which preceded the Duke of Edinburgh’s 3pm funeral, but I did enjoy Huw Edwards’ dulcet tones for a while before and after the ceremony. Huw was at pains to highlight how much input Prince Philip had into the design of his funeral. From music, to readings, to the bespoke Land Rover, there was no mistake to be made: the Duke had wanted this.

I’ve hosted a handful of interviews for the Care in Funerals project since 17th April, and Philip’s funeral has featured briefly in all of them. Interviewees have noted the Queen’s solitary grief; the sparseness and simplicity of the service (at least in relative terms); and – of course – the Land Rover. One celebrant hoped the service would reassure others that a great deal can be done with very little in funerals. She and others have also suggested it might be a ‘good thing’ if Covid-19 ‘refocusses’ people on ‘what really matters’ in funerals, in place of ‘all the bells and whistles’.

Interviews with funeral directors and celebrants have also already revealed their commitment and determination to facilitate as much choice and personalisation as possible during Covid-19 funerals. Some have indicated that they see this as a means of caring for mourners denied funeral normality by pandemic restrictions. This suggests that the broader trend towards choice, diversity and personalisation in funerals (see my previous post on Choice and Diversity in Funerals ) has found its place in the pandemic, at least to some extent. There’s evidence for this elsewhere. In this BBC articlewe are introduced to Peter Cole, who designed his own fitting, personal, and covid-compliant send-off. And, if you watch the video in this piece you’ll see another example of literal vehicles serving as metaphorical vehicles of meaning. Indeed, one funeral arranger and celebrant I interviewed described more people choosing ‘unusual hearses’ during the pandemic. It seems Prince Philip was part of a broader pattern with his Land Rover and other personal touches.

Abi Pattenden – The Queen alone

One thing that struck me was the amount of commentary about the Queen sitting by herself at her husband’s funeral.

In England, at the moment, up to 30 people are allowed to attend a funeral (people working are not included in this number)- in smaller venues, it may be fewer. The attendees at Prince Philip’s funeral numbered exactly 30. Current rules, which the royal family would always have obeyed, mean that households are sitting separately and, as no member of the Queen’s household was present in the Chapel, this meant her sitting alone. She could have been accompanied but then one of the other attendees would have had to be omitted.

Many bereaved people have struggled with the restrictions placed around funeral numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic. 30 people is a large enough number to create dilemmas. For example, some people might wish to privilege distant family over close friends (or vice versa), and excluding a family member’s new partner might seem a logical place to ‘save a space’ but might leave them feeling unsupported.

I have seen bereaved people adapt to these restrictions in a variety of ways. Larger service venues have become more popular. While previously the thought of a too-large (and, as a result, quite empty) space was anathema to some, now they are clearly more desirable. Many people have taken advantage of livestreaming facilities. A small number of people have had more than one service.

It was sad to see Her Majesty sitting by herself. Artist and author Charlie Mackesey produced this poignant image in response to finding it hard to witness. However, the Queen was by no means alone in this experience. The start of this clip shows a funeral carried out by my company in April 2020 with only four attendees present. I think, for many, bereavement is a time where you should not be alone and so the public nature of this funeral has only served to reinforce the disparity between these feelings and our current reality.

Vikki Entwistle – The eulogy was elsewhere

I was ‘wowed’ by the military procession that took Prince Philip’s coffin to the chapel, but because I don’t usually follow royal events, I couldn’t really compare this pandemic-constrained ceremony with their usual.

Perhaps of more relevance to our project, I was struck by the commentary noting that there was little or no eulogy within the funeral service in the church. This was clearly seen as an absence that needed to be explained, and it was explained primarily as a reflection of the Prince’s wishes, albeit linked to the point that, as the Prince would have anticipated when planning his funeral, many good words about him had already been shared in the news media in the aftermath of his death.

Practices of speaking positively about the character and achievement of people who have died are widespread, but with great variation in terms of whether and how they are integrated within religious or other formalized death rites and ceremonies. In recent years, new information and communication technologies and social media have increased the range of forms tributes can take. The constraints on funeral attendance and other social gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic have perhaps further stimulated interest in using and developing these.

I’ll be interested to learn more as our project progresses about the various purposes eulogies and tributes serve, and why people might prefer to give or see them in different contexts.

Ed Thornton – Conflicting responses reflecting different values

What struck me most about Prince Philip’s funeral was the conflicting responses it garnered. For those who respect the institution of the monarchy, and for whom Prince Philip represented something of the national spirit, this was an important and solemn act of national mourning. What is more, for those who have lost loved ones in the past year, the media coverage of the Prince’s funeral may have provided an opportunity to process their own grief. The Queen’s experience of sitting alone in the church, of having to forego many of those things that can make funerals an affirming experience, is one which many people watching the coverage will have sadly been able to relate to.

At the same time, for those who are not attached to the monarchy, or for whom it represents a darker side of the national profile, the state-mandated mourning of one of its figureheads could not have come at a worse time. While the reasons for the protests varied, it’s hard to ignore that fact that the coverage of the Prince’s funeral was the most complained-about piece of programming in British television history. Many viewers were frustrated by the BBC’s decision to interrupt their regular programming for wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral service.

This anger is easier to understand in the context of the pandemic. Over 125,000 people have died in the UK in the past year due to Covid-19, and many of the bereaved have not been afforded the space and the facilities to express their personal grief in a way they feel does justice to those who have passed away. Given this context, the time and attention given to a single royal figure (and one who has alienated or offended a significant section of the British public) may have served to exacerbate rather than relieve the solitude of some people’s grief.

The national ambivalence in relation to Prince Philip’s funeral helped to remind me that mourning and grief are always connected to what we might call our ‘ethics’ or our ‘values’. What we feel is appropriate and inappropriate in death will be intimately related to what we feel is appropriate or inappropriate in life.

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Published by Health Services Research Unit, University of Aberdeen

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