A State Funeral as Civic Education

Winston Churchill died on this date in 1965, and for the first time I watched video footage from his funeral.

I was fascinated to learn that preparations for his eventual funeral began 12 years before his death and had a code name. The planning was initiated after Churchill suffered a serious stroke.

The brightness of the flag draped over Churchill’s coffin against the sea of mourners dressed in black led me to contemplate the way in which a state funeral can be a civic education. The solemnity, ceremony, order, observance, and hierarchy is clearly out of reverence not only for a man but for eternal values.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Reverend Walter Matthews, described Churchill as “a great man who has rendered memorable service to his country and to the cause of freedom… raised up in our days of desperate need to be a leader and inspirer of the nation…” Dean Matthews then prayed that “the memory of his virtues and his achievement may remain as a part of the national heritage inspiring generations to come to emulate his magnanimity and patriotic devotion.”

As I reflect on this funeral, I am also reading Alan Jacobs book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis in which he says:

The unspoken question underlying all these expectations [among intellectuals in Britain and America in the 1940s] was the same: if the free societies of the West win this great world war, how might their young people be educated in a way that made them worthy of that victory–and that made another war on that scale at worst avoidable and at best unthinkable?”

I think one manner of being educated in what made the Allies worthy of that victory is the civic education that might be constituted by reflecting on what made Winston Churchill worthy of that state funeral.

In another section of the book Jacobs quotes W.H. Auden who warned, “The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to: they have nothing to offer and their prospects echo in empty space.”

To study Churchill’s funeral is to be reminded, on multiple levels, of the Heaven to which we cry.

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