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Expert Comment: Public Mourning - Then and Now

Funeral Monday 2 February 2015

Following the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Mike Brennan looks at the difference between public mourning then and now.

Friday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. The media response to the anniversary was relatively low key, where it featured as a small news item on television and radio channels, and as the focus of a BBC retrospective on the event written and presented by Jeremy Paxman. Watching the news-reel footage of the funeral, the colour images looked remarkably recent, reminiscent, especially to those born after Churchill's death, of the funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 - the coffin, draped in a union flag, carried on a military gun carriage through the streets of central London as thousands lined the route to pay their last respects.

Comparisons with Diana's funeral are apt, if only because they illustrate the dramatic cultural shift in British society in the thirty or so years between the death of Churchill and Diana. That Diana was known to millions (who felt they knew her personally) by her first name, in contrast to Churchill, the legendary war-time leader, says much about the socio-cultural context in which the public mourning for these two public figures occurred (including the informalisation of British society and growth of celebrity culture). For Churchill, the public mourning appeared typically British: reserved and respectful, the dutiful marking of the life of a figure whose leadership had seen Britain through five long difficult years of war. In contrast, the mourning for Diana was more personal, more emotional, more flamboyant; reflecting the relationship her many 'fans' had forged with a woman they saw daily, and identified with, in the media.

If grief is the emotional reaction to loss, and mourning is its outward physical manifestation, both are shaped by the socio-cultural context in which they occur. The Britain of 1965, in contrast to today, was more deferential, less diverse, and certainly less 'mediatised' than late modern society, with its 24-hour rolling news channels and social media that facilitate the spread and sharing of public and private emotion. The death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013 offers another fitting comparison with Churchill: a political figure from the same Conservative tradition. Without the deference of old, and perhaps because of her divisive rather than unifying policies (there is no greater unifier than war), Thatcher's passing was, for some, a cause for celebration - transgressing the unwritten British cultural norm to not speak ill of the dead.

Yet despite the perception of a nation united in quiet, dignified grief, the BBC documentary about Churchill's funeral revealed one interesting nugget of information: the London dock workers who bowed their cranes in silent tribute as Churchill's coffin made it's way up the river Thames did not do so as spontaneously as one might be led to believe. Instead, as one former dock worker revealed, many did not want to bow their cranes - because they did not see Churchill as 'a man of the people' - and were paid to do so. In the history of public mourning in Britain, this, however, is not as unusual as one might think, for in the early modern period local bigwigs would pay paupers a dole - usually a loaf of bread - to attend their funeral so as to swell the numbers and reinforce the perception of their importance.

And so, public mourning, like the death that precipitates it, is always shaped by social and cultural influences, that then, as now, reflect the personality of the person being mourned as well as the society mourning them.

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