The Most Prominent Christian Event of the Year: 6 Lessons for Catholics From Queen Elizabeth’s Funeral
YEAR IN REVIEW
At the turn of the millennium, news producers the world over began preparations for three great funerals of global importance: Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa. The first two became the largest Christian events of their respective years, 2005 and 2022.
That John Paul’s funeral would be explicitly Christian was well known; the ritual book for a papal funeral is available in the Vatican bookshop. Contrariwise, the plans for Her Late Majesty were not disclosed in advance; the order of service was only released by Buckingham Palace the day before the state funeral.
It was an explicitly Christian service and the most prominent Christian event of 2022. They weren’t Catholic, but the obsequies for the queen have much to teach Catholics about funeral rites. Six lessons suggest themselves.
Death Is Disruptive
The death of a sovereign — all the more so for one who reigned for 70 years — means that much of ordinary life comes to a stop. Cultural and sporting events in the United Kingdom were canceled, ordinary parliamentary business was suspended, and the rhythms of 21st-century life were interrupted. A state holiday was declared for the funeral itself.
It was an instructive counterpoint to an increasingly common practice, namely, to schedule funerals at a time convenient for the family and friends, who choose not to alter existing commitments. It is no longer unusual for funerals to be scheduled weeks or months after the death — a trend exacerbated by the limitation of funeral rites during the pandemic.
That a death and funeral might cause inconvenience and disruption should be expected, not avoided. It honors the dead to adjust the schedules of the living.
Back in Black
The color of mourning in Western culture is black. For several generations, Catholic clergy have given bad example on this score, usually wearing white vestments for funeral Masses, instead of purple or black. The faithful have followed suit, and it is not unusual to see brightly colored dresses and less-than-somber jackets at funerals.
For the queen, the royal family was all in black, as were all the leading figures of state and society. The Anglican prelates who celebrated the rites were in magnificent black copes.
The effect was noticeable. Just as the Duchess of Cambridge Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress in 2011 encouraged a return to elegant modesty in bridal fashion, at funerals since that of the queen I have noticed a marked increase in the wearing of black, so much so that the gentleman in the burgundy sports jacket or tan trousers now stands out.
Catholic priests may wish to catch up; if the liberal clergy who govern the Church of England can wear black vestments, it is hardly hidebound backwardism. It is just good liturgical manners and knowing how to mourn properly.
The ritual for a deceased monarch is richer than for any other, and the funeral masterfully permitted the ritual to speak. The congregation in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor stood in silence as the instruments of the queen’s earthly power — the orb, scepter and imperial state crown — were removed from the coffin and placed on the high altar. Then they sang Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation. What more need be said?
Ordinary funeral rites are less grand, of course, but they retain their power. The queen’s funeral was absent of eulogies — aside from the archbishop’s homily, no one offered remarks, not even the new king. The prayers, Scriptures and music for a funeral have their own eloquence. Sidelining them in favor of prepared speeches is a mistake.
The Pilgrimage of the Body
Because the queen died in Scotland, her body made several stops before arriving in London — a funeral motorcade from Balmoral to Edinburgh, a lying in state at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and prayers at St. Giles. In London, there was the lying in state at Westminster for several days and the marching processions to and from the abbey. Then came the final motorcade to Windsor.
The different stages constituted a pilgrimage.
The traditional wake, funeral Mass and procession to the cemetery do the same for ordinary Catholics. Funerals without wakes and vigil prayers, funerals without bodies present, funerals with burial delayed for months — all of this diminishes the pilgrimage aspect of death. The living accompanying of the dead is a last act of solidarity.
Burying the Dead
Viewers of Her Late Majesty’s funeral saw something becoming quite rare today — an actual burial. The queen’s coffin was lowered into the royal vault, disappearing from sight. Contemporary practice neglects this. Too often burials are delayed or, even at the cemetery, the casket is left above ground, abandoned until the undertakers arrive later.
Much better the practice at St. George’s, Windsor, where the dean of Windsor quoted Psalm 103 — “For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” — before reciting the stirring and solemn prayer, “Go forth, Christian, soul from this world …”
That is a spiritual salutation worthy of a sovereign — but it should not be exclusively for her. Any soul should be sent off in that way.
Not Funeral Masses
The queen’s funeral was not Eucharistic, but what Catholics would call a “Liturgy of the Word.” That was fitting. The queen, a faithful churchgoer, did not usually attend services that included holy communion, but frequented a Sunday service of readings, prayers, hymns and preaching.
The royal family is “low church” in worship and it was fitting to continue that in death. “Low” does not mean plain, as the soaring music and prayers in Westminster Abbey demonstrated.
Catholics ought to have more funerals that are not funeral Masses. There is something a little strange about celebrating a funeral Mass in death for someone who refused to ever attend Mass in life; it is liturgically flat to celebrate a Mass for a congregation of family and friends who barely know the basic responses.
Catholic practice is now quite comfortable with weddings celebrated without Mass — it is often recommended by priests for couples who are not practicing the faith. It seems a similar practice would be suitable for funerals in similar pastoral circumstances. Queen Elizabeth’s funeral demonstrates that a funeral without a funeral Mass need not be a secondary, much less shabby, affair.
The queen’s funeral was at odds with Catholic practice in some key respects — the flag-draped coffin, for example, or the prime minister reading the Gospel. The great Catholic royal funeral rite — that for the Habsburgs in Vienna — stresses that the late emperor goes to his death a “poor sinner” in need of God’s mercy.
That noted, the great Christian event of 2022 has lessons for Catholics in the year ahead.