Sarah Bond: In Death as in Life: Privatizing the Funus Publicum

On Monday, Downing Street publicized the decision to provide Britain’s former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, with a “ceremonial funeral” replete with a gun carriage, service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and military procession. The costs will be divided between Thatcher’s estate and the British government. The percentages paid by each party and the overall cost of the event won’t be available until after the funeral itself, but a pivotal question is perhaps: should British taxpayers be paying for this? Moreover, should a funeral itself encapsulate the ideas of the deceased?

Funeral of Sulla. Illustration for The 
Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott 
a Beckett (Bradbury, Evans, c 1850).
Being an ancient historian, I will perhaps use a parable from antiquity to begin to approach this question. The historian Appian recounted the immediate argument that arose following the dictator Sulla’s death in 78 BCE. While some senators desired that the retired dictator be given a public funeral, there was strong opposition to this plan within the Senate. The Sullan party eventually won out, and the dictator’s body was carried throughout Italy on a golden litter with trumpeters and horsemen announcing the procession. Both soldiers and common people glommed on to the moving masses, all led by the fasces and standards of the man himself. The mob was headed toward the focal point of the empire: the Roman Forum. Luxurious contributions came from cities, soldiers, and friends of Sulla, and while the thousands in attendance surely looked on in reverence, they also experienced a new level of awe.

The gratuitous display of Sulla's funeral lives on in numerous sources, but the irony of it's grandeur was of course that this lavish sendoff was at odds with his earlier legislation on the matter. His own sumptuary legislation had limited the amount that could be spent on funerals. Plutarch notes that he had earlier broken his own funerary laws in order to give Metella (a wife, we should note, he divorced while she lay dying) a grand, guilt-ridden send-off that defied his own policies.  

In the Republic, royalty imprisoned by Rome and foreign diplomats received burial at the expense of the public. In the first century BCE, Sulla’s ostentatious state funeral became a model for the later imperial family, even if, during the Roman Empire, public funerals were still accorded to a select few private citizens as well. We know of only nine privati who received them in Rome in the century
Silver Denarius of Nero with the funeral
procession of Claudius on the reverse. 
between Augustus and Trajan (though municipalities could and did give funerals to local dignitaries), before the practice of giving non-imperials public funerals died out in the second century CE. The pomp of the public funeral at Rome became largely the special privilege of the imperial family. Imperial funerals were ostensibly about celebrating the lives of the deceased emperor, but also serve as a display of the power of the state, the piety of the successor, and the solidarity of the Roman people.

Just as Sulla's funeral was a bit of a paradox, modern funerals are often at odds with the policies of the deceased. In June of 2004, when Ronald Reagan died, his body was first laid out in the presidential library before being flown at considerable expense to D.C. He was laid to rest in a 700 pound mahogany casket that was about
Funeral of Ronald Reagan at
Washington's National Cathedral.
$14,000, though the average American funeral costs about $6500-$7000. The total cost has been estimated at $400 million—about $56, 800 per hour—if the federal holiday and Wall Street’s closing is factored in. Yet this was a man who campaigned on reducing the role and expenses of government. It should probably here be pointed out that government spending actually rose 2.5% annually and the national debt had more than doubled during Reagan’s presidential terms.

In returning back to the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, it is perhaps important to remember that while state funerals do admittedly play a pivotal role in the perpetuation of popular memory and provide a final appreciative gesture to the recipient, they are an expense that can--and perhaps should--be done away with in this age of financial hardship and budget cuts. An event celebrating a woman who came out strongly against the interference of the state into private lives can make a final statement by taking the financial onus off of the British government. Thus the last act of the Iron Lady could serve as a testament to practicing what you preach. 


  1. I do not find all this reasoning about Reagan/ Thatcher's funerals appropriate.

    1st, they are dead and cannot be blamed for their burials - whose management is obviously beyond their will to decide - being paid for the State.

    2nd, it's not because their policies of tax-cutting and 'minor State' that they cannot be buried as the head-of-states they were.

    3rd, it's always inaproppriate to wait for people deaths to launch critics over their policies

    4th, Comparisons between present and far-ancient times are almost always inadequate, much less the choice made about Sulla, a dictator which throwed away the laws with Thatcher which acted strictly under the letter of the law.

    5th Anyway Roman state was not a democracy, nor guarded the minor resemblance with it, much less in the period Sulla died.

  2. Nobody gets this right. I was part of the East Coast State Funeral Team for President Reagan. I'm a funeral director. State funerals for U.S. Presidents are provided BY our country, not at the request of the family to show off. The State Funeral is a ceremony in gratitude of the individual's service, and honor of the Office. Now, to the problem with your numbers. The cost for a President's State Funeral can be annualized over decades. The last State Funeral in Washington, DC was for President Johnson. Our country can bear the cost. But, where are you getting your numbers? I've read a lot of estimated costs but.....well, nothing reaching the amounts you tally. More number problems.....700 refers to the casket manufacturers model number, not the empty casket weight. It was solid mahogany, made by the Marsellus Casket Company and, the #700 Masterpiece, was their finest casket produced. The empty weight was just under 600 lbs. Typical retail price was $16,000 - $19,000. Also, President Reagan's casket was a standard model, contrary to many many blogs and articles proclaiming everything from "it was the Reagan family's personal design", to the casket dimensions being altered to accommodate his stature. Really!?


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