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The queen’s funeral will embody centuries of royal mourning rituals

In the past, the funeral of a British sovereign provided an opportunity for the new monarch to assert their royal authority

Members of the public pay their respects as they pass the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it lies in state inside Westminster Hall on Sept. 17. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II is being held Monday at Westminster Abbey. It will mark the first time a British monarch’s funeral has been held at the abbey since 1760 for that of King George II, who died at 76, having lived longer than any of his predecessors. And while there have been many royal funerals in past years, most recently for the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021, the last funeral for a British sovereign was held 70 years ago for George VI at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The funeral of a sovereign is certainly a state affair, although state funerals (those that publicly honor individuals of national significance) need not be held exclusively for monarchs. One example is the funeral for Winston Churchill on Jan. 30, 1965, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Yet royal funerals specifically are a matter of great importance to the nation and its people, as evidenced by the crowds that have already paid their respects to the queen.

Monday’s funeral marks the culmination of numerous royal funerary and mourning rites that have taken place over the last 10 days all over the United Kingdom, from Queen Elizabeth’s lengthy coffin procession from Scotland to her lying in state at Westminster Hall. Indeed, the rituals around royal funerals are inherently ceremonial and very visual affairs that date to the medieval period. Originally a social and political necessity, the royal funeral has evolved into a highly orchestrated event rich with symbolism for royals and non-royals alike.

Royal funerals were only ever possible when the succession to the throne was firmly established before the death of the monarch. In medieval Britain, the succession was typically less secure, so possible claimants to the throne might be too busy gathering support or preparing their own coronation. For example, after the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, there was no time for a grand funeral, as the late king’s second son rushed from Normandy to claim the crown. In the ensuing chaos, William’s body was left naked on the floor for a time as his servants ran off with the royal silver.

The line of succession became clearer by the 16th century with the Tudor dynasty, although anxiety and infighting continued well into the next century. But it was critical for the new dynasty to legitimize its right to rule. The funeral of a British sovereign provided the perfect opportunity for these new monarchs to assert their royal authority. As the incoming king or queen, it was their exclusive right to plan the ceremonies for their predecessor — the bigger and more expensive, the better.

Queen Elizabeth I had an elaborate funeral thanks to her successor, King James I of England, the first of the Stuart sovereigns. Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, was laid to rest April 28, 1603, as her body was carried from Whitehall Palace (where she was lying in state) to Westminster Abbey for the funeral ceremony. Thousands of mourners attended the procession, while more than 200,000 spectators observed along the London streets. The queen’s horse was led riderless in the procession, a modified version of the ancient custom of burying or burning the departed’s mount with the owner. Her coffin, covered in purple velvet, featured a colorful and exquisitely carved wooden effigy of the queen, complete with the symbols of monarchy: the crown, orb and scepter. In today’s money, her funeral cost more than $3 million.

In early modern Britain, funerals provided the opportunity for royal and aristocratic families to publicly display their wealth and status, and even improve it. Some nobles were able to raise their social standing by putting on elaborate and expensive funerals for relatives. As funerals grew more extravagant, so did other death rites, including funeral feasts, processions, gravestones and mausoleums. Funeral etiquette became increasingly intricate, as nobles attempted to outdo each other and ensure that those further down the social ladder could not compete with such outlandish expense.

However, by the 19th century, these funeral rituals filtered down, as industrialization gave rise to the new middle class. These up-and-comers were eager to prove their place in society by putting on grand funerals for their own relations. Skimping on funeral and mourning costs was viewed as a lack of respect for the dead as well as for the established social order. Contemporary records reveal that families were constantly anxious regarding the painful costs of funerals and mourning, although they could be somewhat satisfied knowing that they would be held in high esteem for spending so much.

Funerals also developed specific rules and customs. Those who participated in the funeral proceedings were required to wear special mourning robes, and occasionally commemorative funeral tokens were distributed (such as swords). The established dress guidelines were this: dark tones (preferably black) only, and absolutely nothing shiny. All jewelry was either removed or had to be dull or matte. Even shoe buckles had to be altered to fit these rules.

Mourning was not limited to the funeral itself. By the 17th century, there were three distinct stages or periods of mourning, each of which had strict time frames and complicated fashion rules that required the wearing of dull and dark garments and accessories from head to toe. Over time, one’s everyday clothes and accessories could be slowly added back, but only at specific intervals. This even extended to a noble’s household and servants, who, by extension, were required to don mourning dress.

Today, black has become the established shade of mourning, a practice first promoted by the Catholic Church in the 11th century. Yet royals have historically worn other colors too. During the early Middle Ages, purple was worn exclusively by royalty, while royal widows donned white. Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), popularized this trend with her signature white mourning cap and veil. This style survived the Victorian period and was even worn by Queen Mary at the funeral of her son George VI (the father of Elizabeth II) in February 1952.

While royals participated in a public mourning process, the actual appearance of British monarchs at the funeral itself is a relatively new practice. British monarchs may have planned the funerals of their predecessors, but traditionally they didn’t attend. The sovereign was never to be associated with death; it was believed that a king or queen’s royal presence could bring into question their own mortality, an unthinkable possibility. King William IV was one of the first to forgo this tradition when he attended the funeral of his older brother and predecessor George IV, who died in 1830 without any living children. Although monarchs occasionally went to funerals after this, it remained rare. More recently, royals’ absences from funerals may be primarily due to their avoidance of anything that could be interpreted as political.

Some traditions have been discarded over time, but many endure. The history of British royal funerals helps us understand many of the customs and traditions on display at Monday’s funeral, and potentially any deviations from the established order, as the royal family continues to modernize the monarchy in the spirit of their matriarch.