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A grander music, but she was still ‘one of us’

18 April 2013


Scene from St Paul's: the gun carriage draws up outside the west front

Scene from St Paul's: the gun carriage draws up outside the west front

A SINGLE half-muffled bell rang for the arrival of the cortège, at the start of a service steeped in the "secular patriotism" of the woman who devised it in meticulous detail. The funeral of Lady Thatcher of Kesteven, who died last week, was held at St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday.

By 10 o'clock, many of the 2300 guests were already seated. The sea of black was disrupted by the bright flash of a Buddhist monk in orange robes. The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, could be seen in earnest conversation with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, suggesting that, on this occasion at least, Lady Thatcher had managed to bring harmony where there was discord.

While the choir sang William Croft's setting of the funeral Sentences, we watched as Lady Thatcher's coffin, draped in a Union Flag, made its slow progress through the Nave, carried by a "a tri-Service bearer party, found by Arms and Services represented in the Falklands". It was adorned with a wreath of white flowers and the message "Beloved mother, always in our hearts".

In the bidding, the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, gave thanks for Lady Thatcher's leadership, "her courage, her steadfastness, and her resolve to accomplish what she believed to be right". On Monday, Dr Ison said that he had not written the bidding, but had made amendments to it to recall Lady Thatcher's quotation of St Francis of Assisi on her arrival in Downing Street in 1979. He hoped that "everyone who looks at the funeral, whether they are a supporter or not, can reflect on . . . how we can pick up that agenda of making the nation more harmonious".

Although he conceded that the guest list might be rather different, and the music "a bit grander", Dr Ison said that the service was very similar to others: "It is relatively simple and straightforward, and focuses primarily on the person who has died, and space for family and friends."

Amid controversy about the cost of the funeral, estimated to be £10 million, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, also chose to emphasise that Lady Thatcher was, in her death, "one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings".

Although his address began with reference to "a life lived in the heat of political controversy", he swiftly dismissed debate about her policies and legacy as inappropriate for the occasion, reminding the congregation that she had requested a funeral, not a memorial service with "the customary eulogies". Nevertheless, he told two anecotes recalling her "courtesy and personal kindness": her reply to a young boy's question about Jesus, the telling of which wrought a tear from the current Chancellor, George Osborne; and the occasion on which she warned the Bishop off the duck paté at a City function ("it's very fattening"). This last recollection prompted loud laughter under the dome.

It is understood that Lady Thatcher began preparations for her funeral seven years ago. Her choices reflected her upbringing in the Methodist Church, where her father, Alfred Roberts, was a lay preacher. The congregation sang "Love Divine, all loves excelling", by Charles Wesley.

She also chose "I vow to thee, my country", with words by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice set to a tune by Gustav Holst, a hymn she referred to in her speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 in which she praised the hymn's "triumphant assertion of what might be described as secular patriotism, a noble thing indeed in a country like ours".

There was a beautiful blend of voices delivering the prayers and readings, from the soft American accent of Lady Thatcher's granddaughter, Amanda, to the bold, lilting cadences of the Speaker's Chaplain, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, brought up in Jamaica, and the warm Liverpudlian tones of the RC Archbishop Emeritus of Liverpool, the Most Revd Patrick Kelly.

After the prayers, the choir sang In Paradisum from Fauré's Requiem ("May angels lead you into paradise"). It sounded like a lullaby after the vigour of earlier hymns. The final blessing was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At 11.55 a.m., the bearers returned to the bier and we watched the coffin glide back into their arms to be carried out of the Cathedral into the spring sunshine. It was greeted by thousands who had gathered to watch the procession. There was no sign of protest, just rows of people watching the final journey of a woman who was, Bishop Chartres insisted, "one of us".

Question of the week: Was Lady Thatcher's funeral a fitting service?

Sermon by the Bishop of London

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