Just a fairly short one tonight. Inspired by a chat with a friend, I thought I would share a few tit-bits on the subject of a famous funeral that endured a couple of mishaps and all things awkward, that did not discriminate on the basis of class or fame.
When Winston Churchill died in January 1965 after suffering a stroke some days before, he was given one of the biggest state funerals ever known, particularly for a “commoner”. The ceremony involved somber journeys on a gun carriage through the streets of London to the service at St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by another procession to the Thames where the bearer party would hand over the coffin into the safe-keeping of the Royal Irish Hussars who would convey Churchill down the Thames by barge to Waterloo and on by steam train to his private burial alongside his parents and brother. His original intention following an earlier stroke some years previously, had been to be buried under the croquet lawn of his country home. Following his second stroke, his wife gently but firmly insisted it was a bad idea. He reluctantly agreed and the plan was switched to St Martin’s Church, Bladon.
When the procession reached St Paul’s, Churchill’s lead-lined coffin was taken by the bearer party and carried shoulder high up the steep double flight of steps into the doors of the Cathedral. Preceded by a party of pall-bearers, which included former Prime Ministers Clement Atlee and Harold MacMillan, it had been decided that in a break with tradition, due to their age, a bearer party would do the actual manual work involved in transferring the coffin from the gun carriage to the Cathedral. Since his first stroke 12 years previously, the funeral plan “Operation Hope Not” had been put into place, its organ
izer the Duke of Norfolk constantly revising the details over the following years, as Lord Mountbatten – another of the pall bearers – put it “The problem was that Churchill kept living and the Pall-bearers kept dying!”
So following the eventually fatal stroke, a group of soldiers from various regiments, picked in part for their height which ranged from six feet to six feet four, the further back they were positioned in the bearing party, began to practice lifting and lowering a coffin. On the morning, as they reached their destination with the gun carriage, they prepared to lift and hoisted Churchill to their shoulder. He proved heavier than they anticipated. Halfway up the second of the two steep flights of steps, Clement Atlee stumbled, causing the bearers to pause. As they did, the momentum caused the coffin to slip back from the shoulders of the front bearers. Lance Sergeant Lincoln Perkins, in the second row, recalled placing his hand upon the coffin to stop it sliding further, and reassuring the passenger that he was in safe hands. It took all the might of the rear “pushers” of the party to prevent the total dropping of the coffin, and the ability to continue to climb the steps from a standing start.
Of course, that wasn’t the only mishap of the day. Later that afternoon, as the coffin was lowered into its final resting place, a “thunk” was heard by the lead officer of the burial party. After a brief discreet glance around, he chose to ignore and carried on with his duties. It was only later on the train back to the city that one of the other burial party came to him and notified him that his medals had vanished….. back to that “thunk” and a quickly timed call to the diggers finishing the job, reassured him that the grave was as yet unfilled. The medals were quietly retrieved from under the coffin and returned to the soldier in question.