The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last state funeral was Churchill’s. Queen Elizabeth II’s was bigger.

Then-Princess Elizabeth greets Winston Churchill at a reception in London on March 23, 1950. (AFP/Getty Images)
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There were 2,000 attendees in Westminster Abbey, including nearly 90 world leaders. There were 142 Royal Navy sailors pulling the monarch’s coffin afterward, plus 4,000 military personnel on parade. There were 2,868 diamonds glittering in the Imperial State Crown that topped her coffin, and Big Ben tolled 96 times — once for each year lived by Queen Elizabeth II.

On every dimension, the numbers attested to the grand scale of the queen’s funeral on Monday.

Britain’s last state funeral was for Winston Churchill, whose powerful send-off on a bitterly cold January day in 1965 was proclaimed “the last time that London would be the capital of the world.”

But once again, the world was watching. And by most measures, the queen’s farewell ultimately was a bigger event than Churchill’s.

The wartime prime minister lay in state for three days, during which more than 320,000 people waited in lines lasting several hours to pay respects to a man who became a firewall against fascism.

The queen lay in state for four days. In a metropolitan area whose population has nearly doubled since Churchill’s era, waiting time in the “queue to end all queues” reached 14 hours — so long that the government warned well-wishers to stay away on the last day. That didn’t deter the hundreds of thousands who braved it earlier. Millions more watched by live stream.

Both the queen and Churchill were honored with thousands of military men marching in processions. Where the queen had Big Ben’s chimes, Churchill had a 90-gun salute to mark his years of life. A chronicle from Britain’s Observer noted that Lord Mountbatten — a senior military officer and close relative to the royal family who was later assassinated in 1979 — was “pacing behind the chiefs of staff carefully manipulating his sword and, like any trooper, trying to keep pace with the band.”

The queen’s procession, meanwhile, saw the current and future king marching behind her coffin, along with other significant members of the royal family.

Churchill’s funeral — held inside the larger venue of St. Paul’s Cathedral — had more attendees, roughly 3,000, compared with those who filled the relatively more intimate Westminster Abbey to remember the queen. (Another 800 people, mostly members of the royal household and others with personal connections to her, then gathered at the committal service that followed in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.)

But the queen’s guests stood out. Churchill’s funeral was attended by delegations from just over 110 countries. The queen’s, taking place in an era of more independent states, was like a summit of the global who’s who, with representatives of nearly 200 countries and territories.

Live updates: A grand funeral and procession for Elizabeth II

Among them were approximately 90 presidents and prime ministers, including President Biden. By comparison, Churchill’s drew six presidents and 16 prime ministers. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, ill with a respiratory problem, stayed home.

Six monarchs attended Churchill’s send-off. The front rows of the queen’s funeral were lined with members of 23 royal families. More than 1,000 police and security personnel stood watch over Churchill’s funeral. The queen’s represented the biggest security operation in Britain since World War II, complete with snipers on rooftops, surveillance drones, 10,000 uniformed police officers and thousands more in plainclothes.

During Churchill’s funeral, at least 1 million people lined the streets on a procession day so cold that some feared for the health of Churchill’s young descendants as one marched hatless behind the coffin. On a fortuitously mild September day, the queen’s funeral drew as many as 2 million, though there are still no official counts.

The queen’s remains were taken on a final journey to Windsor, 22 miles outside London, for internment within the same 15th-century Gothic walls of the castle chapel where her parents, sister and husband, Prince Philip, all lie.

Churchill’s coffin took a more complicated route — borne after its procession by the MV Havengore along the Thames River, where dockworkers lowered their cranes. After a journey northwest by train, he was buried in a smaller, more intimate ceremony at St. Martin’s churchyard in Bladon.

Perhaps the biggest difference today could be the international audience. About 350 million watched Churchill’s funeral worldwide, a still-startling figure given the period. Yet some observers predicted that the queen’s would break global viewership records, potentially topping 4 billion by day’s end.

Such an enormous number might actually be impossible — totaling more than half the planet. But should the final tally come anywhere close, her funeral would become one of the most-watched television events in history.

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Queen Elizabeth II
Laid to rest
Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.
A new monarch


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Judging from the unyielding respect Churchill had for the young Queen Elizabeth II, that sounds like what Sir Winston would have wanted.

As Justin Reash, executive director of the International Churchill Society, said, “He saw Elizabeth and her dedication to public service as the future of the monarchy.”