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).
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
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
|Silver Denarius of Nero with the funeral |
procession of Claudius on the reverse.
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
$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
|Funeral of Ronald Reagan at|
Washington's National Cathedral.
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.