A ceremonial funeral and a common destiny

By Jill Segger
April 18, 2013

“Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings”. Speaking at
Margaret Thatcher's funeral yesterday (17 April) , the Bishop of London reminded us of what a funeral is actually about.

Whether this 'ceremonial' event could really bring us to the recognition of our commonality and of the consequent need for humility, solidarity and compassion is open to question. This was a piece of political theatre, devised for an international audience and as such, it was carried out with that attention to detail and sense of pageantry which seem – to an Englishwoman – to be a particular skill of our national culture.

The tolling bells and muffled drums, the scarlet and gold of ceremonial military dress, the reversed
rifles and all the tackle and trim of warriors have a profound effect upon the observer. They are designed to stir something within us which bypasses discernment and strikes deep to unexamined and visceral response. In that sense, it is worth considering that they may have something in common with pornography. None of us are so pure that we may float serenely above these diversions from integrity.

The manner of our lives will be reflected in the observance of our passing. Allowing for the differences in station, our funerals will speak of what we really are. There were some aspects of Margaret Thatcher's funeral which were admirable and reflected her Methodist upbringing – her desire that there should be no eulogies and the consequent willingness to put herself in the hands of those who will speak of truths transcending the currency of political spin, was a flash of honesty among the dramaturgy of power and establishment. Richard Chartres – an establishment prelate to his backbone – rose to that challenge and spoke with greater insight, compassion and honesty than I had expected.

Nonetheless, the extravagance – in both the literal and ceremonial sense, revealed a deficit in truth. Comparisons may be odious, but it is sometimes useful to examine relational experience. My mother was of Margaret Thatcher's generation and was, like her, the daughter of a provincial working class family. A child of the west Cumbrian coalfield, she had a hard childhood and was left a young widow. She made no great noise in the world but lived a life of simplicity, love and quiet dignity. These were therefore the qualities which informed her funeral. Anything else would have stolen her from us in a way that death could not.

The integrity which existed between her life and our farewell to her existence in this circle of being was, of course, not put under strain by the expectations of a wider audience. But it was the essential nature of that life and not its outward forms which made the last observances what they were.

If we have really understood and internalised that common destiny of which the bishop spoke, we must not only live so as to be ready for death, we will need to make our relationships, work and actions consonant with a truthful funeral. And in the face of that common destiny, the truth is in humility, in solidarity with our shared condition and in the constant vigilance of serving without hubris.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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