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Political Funerals, Funeral Politics

20 April 2013

This post is the result of a thought process sparked by a potent combination of the last entry on Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and my teaching at the University of Bradford. Let me explain.

I have been teaching a module called ‘Culture and Society, 1760-1914’ since Christmas. It offers a broad survey of the so-called ‘long nineteenth century’ by looking at a number of specific topics. It’s also quite wide ranging – with workshops on Victorian vegetarianism, Jack the Ripper and London Zoo to name just three. As part of this, my students have also considered the role of death in nineteenth century Britain and the changing culture of monarchy.

In both cases I illustrated the broader themes with examples – the monarchy was analysed through a comparison between King George III’s and Queen Victoria’s jubilees, whilst the session on death and mourning referenced the Duke of Wellington’s spectacular funeral (c. 1.5 million mourners, a £11,000 funeral carriage, £80, 000 spent on seating etc).

I was planning this session on 8 April and delivered it the day before Thatcher’s “£10m” ceremony. A coincidence certainly, but it got me thinking about the politics of public remembrance (not least as I had also used Churchill’s funeral as an example with a group of adult learners a couple of weeks earlier).

The whole debate surrounding Thatcher’s funeral raises a number of questions.  From those about the importance of recognisable sites of memory in provoking public debate about history, to those about the relationship between political power, personality and the public perception. These are the questions implicitly raised by the comparison between Thatcher and Attlee.  They are also questions that could be applied to a whole host of historical figures.

A little preliminary searching throws up a 1999 textbook by Harry Garlick called The Final Curtain: State Funerals and the Theatre of Power (which I haven’t found access to), but also leaves the impression that there is much more research to be done. The limited examples of Thatcher, Attlee, Wellington and Churchill suggest it would be a fascinating topic.


Note – If you don’t find this all too morbid I would recommend Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gitting’s Death in England: An Illustrated History (Manchester: University Press, 1999) as an excellent introduction.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 January 2015 8:46 pm

    This article is really interesting. I found it whilst searching google in the early stages of researching my MA Dissertation, which I am writing upon Winston Churchill’s funeral from a social and cultural perspectives, drawing upon contemporary examples. I can see a lot of scope for further research in this fascinating area.

    • 29 January 2015 12:56 pm

      Really glad you found it interesting Holly. It’s a timely dissertation topic!

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