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Churchill: The central act was the dead body in a box

Friday, 30 January, 2015

“This was the last time that such a thing could happen. This was the last time that London would be the capital of the world. This was an act of mourning for the imperial past. This marked the final act in Britain’s greatness. This was a great gesture of self-pity and after this the coldness of reality and the status of Scandinavia.”

The state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill took place 50 years ago today and Patrick O’Donovan covered the ceremony for the Observer. Rarely has journalistic prose matched an historic occasion so well. This is magnificent:

“But really this was a celebration. And however painful, most funerals are just that. When a man is buried, those who are still alive crave some gesture of respect that cannot help the cadaver. And this gesture is made over and over again by Christians and Communists and humanists and the unconcerned. It is a proud half-conscious assertion that man is not an animal that dies alone in a hole. It is almost a gesture of contempt to the face of death. And once or twice in a generation, a dead monarch or hero is chosen to epitomise a whole nation’s assertion of continuity and dignity. And because the central, the overwhelming fact was the dead body in a box of oak at a certain time and in a special way was, for all public purposes, Britain and more than Britain, this assertion was unbelievably eloquent over this corpse.

It was a triumph. It was a celebration of a great thing that we did in the past. It was an act of gratitude to a man whom we can no longer help or please. The many heads of state there were appropriate but not important. We were not sad. We knew for whom these bells tolled. We knew the man whose body we removed in such unimaginable splendour. And because he was us at our best, we gave him a requiem that rejected death and was almost a rejoicing.”

Winston Churchill by Robert Elliot


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