The Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin, covered with His Royal Highness’s Personal Standard (Photo by Richard Pohle - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Going the way of all the earth

Our inability to do justice to the death of Prince Philip

Artillery Row

In George Orwell’s essay ‘A Hanging’, about an execution during his time in Burma, he describes his emotions when he realises what it means to witness a sentient being’s death. Orwell refers to the ‘solemn foolery’ of a condemned man’s organs all working, pointlessly, when he is seconds away from the end. When it comes to death, the idea of ‘solemn foolery’ has been much displayed since Prince Philip’s demise on 9 April. 

From the BBC’s showy yet self-indulgently defensive yet borderline self-parody wall-to-wall coverage on the day of the death itself to the shenanigans of who will walk in what order to the funeral procession, there has been a nonsensical parade of inanities and confusion. The coverage of these has in some quarters obscured much of the sadness that the event itself holds. One can only imagine that, if the Duke of Edinburgh was watching the coverage unfold, he would growl and shout ‘Get a fucking move on!’

Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 has informed every display of mourning since

That the events around the funeral are proceeding as tragedy leavened by farce, or vice versa, indicates that the British are now very bad at dealing with grand ceremonial events of a mournful nature. This was not always the case. The funeral of Winston Churchill on 30 January 1965 was so successfully orchestrated and executed that his grateful widow Clementine said to her daughter ‘It wasn’t a funeral, Mary – it was a triumph’. 

And the ceremony on 15 February 1952 for George VI, the last British monarch to die, led to a surge in purchases of television sets to watch the event, which in turn found happier use for the Coronation the following year. His widow’s funeral nearly half a century later, on 9 April 2002, was also widely seen as a success, even allowing for some touches of silliness on the fringes: a ceremonial poem by Andrew Motion, then Poet Laureate (‘you helped give a shape/to slipstreaming time/with a wave of your hand’) and the presence of Iain Duncan Smith, then in his brief tenure as Conservative leader. 

Yet the most high-profile of all modern Royal funerals, that of Princess Diana on 6 September 1997, has informed every display of mourning since. If it had been scripted by The Crown’s Peter Morgan, it could scarcely have been more dramatic, from Earl Spencer’s fiery, passionate address to Elton John’s emotional rendition of a rewritten ‘Candle In The Wind’. That various Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg were in attendance only strengthened the sense of showbusiness and royalty colliding, and reminded the millions watching worldwide that this was a slickly choreographed spectacle as much as a celebration of a young woman’s life. 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral itself was as skilfully organised as he himself would have wanted

During his speech, Spencer spoke of his nephews William and Harry, and said ‘We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair’. It is unfortunate that, a quarter of a century on, the story that has tainted their grandfather’s funeral is of the strained relationship between the two brothers. Whether one blames an institutionally racist Royal Family or a fame and power-hungry couple unable to understand historical precedent, the fallout from Harry and Meghan’s departure from Britain and the scandalous (and poorly timed) Oprah Winfrey interview continues to reverberate through the House of Windsor, and beyond. 

The Queen sits alone

So it is that, at the funeral, their cousin Peter Phillips has ended up playing gooseberry, standing between the two of them as they walked through Windsor Castle to St George’s Chapel. Much was made in the papers in the run-up to the event of how William and Harry would be kept 12 feet apart during the procession. This story, however, paled in insignificance in many people’s eyes to the return of the Grand Old Duke of York into the public consciousness, for the first time since he humiliated himself in front of Emily Maitlis and an incredulous nation. It was amusing that Prince Andrew demanded that he attend the event dressed as an admiral, until it was decided that military outfits should be discarded so as not to embarrass Prince Harry, who lost his honorary military titles when he abandoned his royal responsibilities. Those wags who remarked that his father’s funeral was surely not the place to show off his latest hire from a theatrical costumier were not so wide of the mark.

In the event, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral itself was as tactfully handled and skilfully organised as he himself would have wanted. He had arranged every aspect of it years before, from the customised Land Rover that bore his coffin to the choice of music. (Apparently he said of his send-off that all he wanted from it was to be ‘put in a Land Rover and sent up to Windsor’.) Even the socially distancing that saw only 30 mourners attend the event seemed appropriate. Far from the crowds of hundreds that might have been expected at a Westminster Abbey ceremony, or even a ‘normal’ Royal Ceremonial funeral at St George’s, Windsor, there was something rightly intimate and familial about the small, select congregation. Certainly the music and the service made the fact bigger for their being smaller: we saw very clearly the truth of the matter at hand. 

It befitted an unsentimental old sailor that the most moving moment came when the much-reduced choir sang ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’, reflecting both his heroic naval service in World War II and his lifelong passion for the sea. And the ceremony itself happily did not contain any particularly newsworthy events, as defined by a ‘gaffe’ hungry press. Lip readers, that standby of broadcasters and newspapers for indiscreet remarks, have been thwarted by the need for facemasks. From a presentational perspective, it was a success, unlike some of the other events that have taken place since Prince Philip’s demise. 

It says something for our greatly diminished national expectations of grief – for our collective inability in an unrooted age to know what to do – that the funeral of the Queen’s husband passing off without significant incident can be considered a triumph. Given the psychodrama that the Royal Family, and its attendant circus, have been prey to over the past eighteen months, there has been a hungry expectation that all events will now have a story attached to it. Looming not-so-distantly on the horizon lies the prospect of another funeral, and then the national mourning that will have begun in earnest before that. Let us hope that the direction of travel set today has been towards less rather than more solemn foolery.  

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