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State funeral: from national mourning to lying in state

A gun carriage bore Margaret Thatcher's coffin to her ceremonial funeral

A gun carriage bore Margaret Thatcher's coffin to her ceremonial funeral. Picture: Österreichisches Außenministerium via Wikimedia Commons

A state funeral is a solemn and significant occasion, but what can we expect to happen at a royal funeral and through a time of national mourning?

What is a state funeral?

A state funeral is a ceremony held for the nation to pay its respects when the reigning sovereign dies. While other members of the Royal Family may be honoured with royal ceremonial funerals, a state funeral differs from a ceremonial funeral in two ways.

In all but the most exceptional circumstances, a state funeral is a formal honour that follows the death of a ruling king or queen. The second factor that sets a state funeral apart from a ceremonial or royal funeral, is that the gun carriage that traditionally bears the coffin is drawn by Royal Navy sailors, rather than by horses.

In the case of both state and ceremonial funerals, the person who has died is usually borne in a military procession to Westminster Hall. Here, they may lie in state for a period of days – an opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects – before a full religious service is held at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral.

The last royal state funeral took place following King George VI’s death in 1952. His consort, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was honoured with a royal ceremonial funeral in March 2002.

Who else can have a state funeral?

A British state funeral is as uncommon an event as it is solemn. Only a very few remarkable individuals have been extended the honour, which is generally reserved for the nation to pay its final respects when a reigning king or queen dies.

In exceptional cases, the sovereign can order a state funeral to honour a person of note. This must be agreed by a vote in Parliament, because state funerals are funded by the public purse.

The last state funeral to be held in this country was that of Sir Winston Churchill, in 1965. Churchill’s funeral was given the codename ‘Operation Hope Not’ when it was planned, 12 years before his death.

Although Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and Baroness Thatcher had spectacular funerals with many honours, strictly speaking, these were ceremonial, rather than state funerals.

The Duke of Edinburgh is understood to have no wish for the ‘fuss’ of a state funeral, nor for a lying in state, after his death.

Who organises a state funeral?

Organising a state funeral is an official part of the responsibilities of the Royal College of Arms and the Royal Household’s Earl Marshal, a hereditary office of state held by the Duke of Norfolk.

Parliamentary officials and the police are also involved in the detailed planning that takes place.

North London-based Leverton and Sons was made Royal funeral director by arrangement with the Lord Chamberlain in 1991. It arranged Princess Diana, Princess Margaret, the Queen Mother and Margaret Thatcher’s funerals. Media reports following the inquest into Princess Diana’s death revealed that the firm has a ‘first call’ coffin on standby in the event of a member of the royal family’s death.

The 228-year-old firm also looks after the funeral arrangements of around 1,000 members of the public annually, with the philosophy that every single person and bereaved family that it looks after is treated equally.

How much does a state funeral cost?

A state funeral can take place over a number of days and involves a host of services, authorities and organisations to ensure it goes safely and smoothly. The most recent full-scale public funeral to be held in this country was Baroness Thatcher’s, which was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in April 2013.

This was a ceremonial funeral with full military honours and gives some idea of how much a state funeral costs. The Cabinet Office announced a total cost of around £1.2 million.

The Government said no public money was spent on Lady Thatcher’s reception at the Guildhall, which was paid for by the City of London Corporation. However, media reports later suggested that ‘opportunity costs’ – expenses due to thousands of police officers guarding the funeral being unavailable for duties elsewhere – were around £2 million.

  • An estimated 2.5 billion people around the world watched Princess Diana’s televised funeral on September 6, 1997.

Do we get a day off if the Queen dies?

It’s expected that the nation will observe a 12-day period of national mourning when the Queen dies, during which time the Union flag of public buildings will be flown at half-mast.

So do we get a day off when the Queen dies? The likelihood is that the day of her state funeral will be declared a bank holiday and that The Stock Exchange will close.

Lying in state – how can I pay my respects?

A lying in state is an opportunity for anyone to pay their respects to the person who has died. During this period of national mourning, the coffin is placed on view to allow members of the public to pass by and pay tribute.

During a state funeral and ceremonial and royal funerals, the coffin rests on a raised platform in the centre of Westminster Hall. Units from the Sovereign’s Bodyguard, Foot Guards or the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment stand guard at each corner of the platform, around the clock.

Around 200,000 members of the public paid their respects over the three days and nights that the Queen Mother lay in state before her royal funeral in 2002. Anyone can visit and pay their respects during this stage of national mourning, but should be prepared for a long wait to view the coffin.

  • Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington’s state funeral in 1852 drew 1.5 million people to the streets of London, as his cortege proceeded from the Horse Guards to St Paul’s Cathedral.

What happens when the Queen dies?

Blueprints for the Queen’s state funeral have been mapped out for years. It is said both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have pragmatic outlooks, and have been involved in the decision-making concerning their own royal funeral plans.

During an anticipated 12-day period of official national mourning, the Queen will be brought to lie in state in Westminster Hall, where close family will attend a prayer vigil around her catafalque.

As many as quarter of a million members of the public may come to pay their respects when her coffin lies in state and sign the Book of Condolence.

Local authorities have already laid out protocols, including for senior and public-facing officials to wear black ties during the national mourning period. The BBC is among the national institutions with protocols in place which will begin when the news is announced, including the suspension of scheduled broadcasts, to focus upon the solemnities.

As the world’s longest reigning living monarch during her lifetime, leaders from around the world are likely to attend the Queen’s state funeral, which will be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Although it has not been confirmed where the Queen will be buried, the strong likelihood is that this will be at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where her parents and sister, Princess Margaret, lie at rest.