Tuesday, September 20, 2022
It's Tuesday, September 20th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Meaning of Funerals and the Making of History: The State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and History on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Yesterday, millions upon millions around the world watched the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and other dominions. It was a very moving ceremony. It was one of the rarest of all public events in recent Western history. It was a state funeral, the first in Great Britain since the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. More about that in just a moment. We're looking at several intersecting points here, and they deserve Christian attention. There are just huge worldview dimensions attached to all of these events, all the traditions, all the attention. But let's just step back for a moment and recognize that there is something important being underlined by the fact that this was first of all, a funeral. That tells us something about human beings, human beings being mortal, and the scripture explains why. Have a consciousness of that mortality and that mortality makes us take death very seriously.
And thus, wherever you find even a remnant of human civilization, you find some kind of evidence of burial patterns and also of what we might call funeral practices. Or to put it in another way, where you find human community and traces of human civilization, you find markers of death, you find cemeteries, you find burial urns, you find different evidences of the fact that human beings take death very, very seriously. And theologically, we understand why. We also trace this to the fact that made in the image of God, the imago Dei, at least a part of that means that we have the consciousness of our own existence and our own mortality, even the anticipation of our own death. This is something unique to human beings. It's unique because we're the only creatures made in God's image, but it also points to something else and Christians remember this. We are told in the Bible that God has put within us the sense of eternity, and that means that our mortality, the very fact of human death and the inevitability of human death, it points to a yearning for the immortal, for the eternal.
And that's one of the evidences of the fact that God has revealed himself not only in creation outside of us, but also in the very constitution of our minds inside of us, so to speak. Now, as you think about the formalization of these funeral practices or observances about the death of human beings, consider the fact that they can be so monumental, indeed, so gigantic as the ancient pyramids of Egypt. You're also looking at the fact that when you look through human history, one of the main evidences that you will find of the oldest human civilizations is the fact that you will find buried bones or you will find fragments or you'll find what was clearly some kind of evidence of a burial ground or of memorial stones.
You see those referenced in the scripture, as well, very centrally in the Old Testament. But in terms of the scale of human life, the fact is that the bigger the public consequence of the life, the bigger the funeral. And that's because we also attach symbolic meaning to fellow human beings. There is no greater illustration of that than the hereditary monarchy, the burial of a king. And that would be more common, of course, but sometimes of a queen. And in this case, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. This really was a huge state event. And that points to another very interesting history, and that's the history of the state funeral.
But before we get to the state funeral, let's just reflect upon the fact that in the early Christian Church, Christians had to figure out how rightly to observe the death of believers in such a way that a Christian funeral, so to speak, or a Christian service for the dead, would be a service that was authentic to the gospel, that was grounded in biblical truth that proclaimed the reality of death and yet at the very same time, the promise of the resurrection and life everlasting to come in Christ. So you find evidences of this even within the New Testament itself. Think about First Corinthians 15, one of the most majestic chapters in scripture relating to the promise of the resurrection of the body. The Apostle Paul writes about the resurrection of Christ, making clear that his physical resurrection from the dead is the very foundation of Christianity.
And then as these paragraphs draw to a close, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul wrote this, "I tell you this, brothers. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery, we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory. Oh, death, where is your victory? Oh, death, where is your sting?"
The final words of this passage, "The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." Now you look at that precious powerful passage and you come to understand, okay, that's what makes a Christian funeral, Christian. Now a little footnote here. We're talking about a funeral, in this case. We're talking about the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. We're talking about a Christian funeral practice. And for Christians, the main practice observing the reality of death and the power of the gospel has been the Christian funeral. Now, I'll just note that means not primarily a memorial service.
What's the distinction between a memorial service and a funeral? The answer is the most important distinction is that customarily at a funeral, the body is present. The body is a testimony of the continuum from life unto death and the promise of the resurrection, which is to come. Thus, the general, and I think very biblical Christian practice has been the funeral rather than, as a norm, the memorial service in which the body customarily is not present. Now, there are all kinds of circumstances in which a memorial service is the best that can be done. But the actual definition of a funeral as a service of Christian worship and observance for the proclamation of Christian truth in the face of death has generally, and I think for sound theological reasons, been done with the body of the deceased present. But that's the background of the Christian understanding of a funeral.
And thus, throughout the centuries of Christian experience, those traditions became more and more formalized. And in particular, during the medieval era, the practice of the funeral mass came to be observed. Now, for all kinds of theological reasons, Protestant evangelical Christians do not observe a funeral mass and we could go into a lot of detail there. We'll simply say that that mass is characteristic of the sacramental theology of Roman Catholicism, not of the word-centered, gospel-centered theology of evangelicals. But nonetheless, when you're looking at say, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, there are traces of the funeral mass of the medieval era, even in the funeral that took place in Westminster Abbey yesterday, and there's some good reason for that we will talk about. But then we fast forward to the fact that the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II was not just a family funeral. It was not just a community funeral. It was a state funeral.
Well, what is that? The idea of a state funeral goes to the magnitude of the event, which simply points in so many ways to the magnitude of the life. Now, all human beings are equally made in the image of God. All believers are equally redeemed in the Lord Jesus Christ. But when it comes to public lives, well, they're lived out on a different scale, which is to say Queen Elizabeth II lived one of the largest lives of the 20th and of the 21st centuries, in terms of her public role. And not only that, she held multiple offices during her reign as the Queen of England of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. She was indeed Queen, not only of the United Kingdom, but also of associated dominions. She had many other titles, and among them was the fact that she was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Over the course of the last several centuries, the idea of a state funeral has become pretty familiar to human beings, particularly in Western societies. In the first place, a state funeral is often the funeral of someone who had been the head of state. That just makes sense. And throughout most of Western civilization, that would've meant a crowned head through a hereditary monarchy. And so the death of a monarch or of a former monarch, there aren't that many of those, by the way, in world history, was often an occasion of state significance.
And that's exactly the precedent for the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that was held in Westminster Abbey yesterday. And so in particular, between the period of the 18th and the 19th centuries, the idea of a state funeral grew into what we might call the modern age. There are ancient and medieval traces throughout the modern state funeral, as you saw yesterday, but the reality is that by the time you're into the 19th century, through the 20th century, state funerals take on a very familiar structure.
The History of State Funerals: And Looking Back to the State Funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965
Now, let's leave England for a moment and come back to the United States of America. We have state funerals here in the United States. That means that the funeral itself is in event of state. That's what makes the state funeral a state funeral. The state, that is to say the government, the nation, takes responsibility for this funeral service. As you're looking at state funerals in the United States, the first national funeral, the first time that the young nation took responsibility for a funeral was in 1790. And the person who died was not a present or former President of the United States, but was one of the most important framers and founders of the United States. That was Benjamin Franklin, in the year 1790. Just nine years later, the United States held what is mostly recognized as the first effective state funeral, and that was the funeral of the nation's first president. That funeral held in 1799, so over 200 years ago.
In the United States, the first state funeral to take on the shape of what we know today, basically in form as you see them take place, usually in Washington, D.C. when it comes to a president or a former president, the first in this more modern line is dated to 1841 and the state funeral of President William Henry Harrison. President Harrison was the first U.S. president to die while in office and this came as a great shock to the United States, and basically it shocked the United States into adopting the British practice of the state funeral, as was the case with the crowned heads of the United Kingdom. So it's very interesting. The funeral that you saw yesterday of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey was actually modeled after previous British state funerals. And the American state funeral was an adaptation of the very same idea, again, the first in 1841. But the one that fundamentally changed the nation was the state funeral of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
That shocking development forced the young nation to come together to figure out how Americans should commemorate a fallen president and how a state funeral in the United States should be arranged. Now, here's what's really, really interesting. The state funeral of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 basically became the template, or the pattern, for presidential state funerals thereafter. Now, here's something else just in the tragedy of moments in American history. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963, his widow, even in the shock of the assassination of her husband, and she was sitting beside him in the presidential limousine in the motorcade there in Dallas, she had the presence of mind to order the White House to immediately pull up the paperwork from the state funeral of Abraham Lincoln, another assassinated president of the United States, in order for the funeral of John Kennedy to have an historical and accurate precedent.
It's also interesting to note that what makes a state funeral a state funeral in recognizable terms is that, for example, the military is involved. The military, as an extension of the state, takes on a formalized role of mourning. Now when you think about it, that's particularly appropriate because the military, tragically enough, so often has to mourn its own dead and to come to terms with that reality. It is the formality of the military that adds a certain weight and dignity to a state occasion, and in particular, to a state funeral. In the United States, the involvement of the uniformed military under command, and by the way in the United States, it is a particular command, it is the Military District of Washington, it is the joint force headquarters of the National Capital Region of the United States military that has responsibility for state funerals. And here's the thing, they are preparing for them all the time because one of the responsibilities of the state of the government is to be ready when such an occasion tragically should present itself.
The state funeral implies the presence at the funeral of the emblems of state, which is why, for instance, at a state funeral of a former president of the United States or of a sitting president, the seal of the presidency will be very visible in the funeral itself, so also a declaration of official national mourning and then official state expressions of grief on behalf of the nation. That's something that doesn't happen with all citizens. It's characteristic of a state funeral. It's also interesting that the construction of what is known as the National Cathedral, and by the way, with all the discussion of the so-called separation of church and state and all the rest, and I'm not going to go into that entire debate today, it's interesting that even with that as background and even as people declare a secular reality to the American government, the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D.C. is actually a church that was chartered by the United States Congress.
Now, why? It's an Episcopal cathedral. All kinds of theological issues we could talk about there. But nonetheless, the issue is Washington, D.C. needed a great gothic cathedral in which to house great affairs of state that call for the context of worship and cry out the Christian tradition, rather than the merely democratic traditions of the United States government.
‘Let Us Commend Queen Elizabeth to the Care and Keeping of Almighty God’: The World Hears Scripture and Christian Doctrine in the Order of Service of Britain’s State Funeral for Queen Elizabeth II
But then we go back to yesterday, and it's not just going back in time, it's going back in space because that funeral for Queen Elizabeth II, that state funeral held yesterday, it was held in Westminster Abbey. It is, I must tell you, one of my favorite places on planet earth. I visit there as often as I can, struck by the fact that Christian worship has taken place in that space.
The reading of the Holy Scriptures has taken place in that space, that is even in the presence of some of those stones for almost 1000 years. The history of the Abbey, as it is known, goes back at least to the 11th century. It can be traced back to Edward the Confessor, the English king who formalized the Abbey as a place of worship and of Christian learning in the year 1042. Again, that is just 20 years short of a thousand years ago. William the Conqueror, another English king, in the year 1066, formalized the continued building of what became Westminster Abbey and its current shape as a building dates back to the year 1245, the 13th century, when King Henry III went on to order the construction of the church that we know today, at least in terms of the nave and the central areas that you know within the Abbey. The towers added just a matter of time later.
Westminster Abbey is a royal church, which is to say the queen or the king has a particular claim upon Westminster Abbey. It is also known as a collegiate church, and that sounds like something related to a university. That's not actually true. A collegiate church means that it is much like a cathedral, in that services take place in that space every single day. And again, that means every single day, stretching back to the 11th century. But the fact is that it is not a cathedral because it is not the seat of a bishop. So there's no bishop, thus it is not a cathedral. The word cathedral goes back to cathedra, which means the throne, and that would mean a bishop's throne, the bishop speaking from the throne, ex cathedra, as you often hear. It is not a cathedral, but it looks like a cathedral. And indeed, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the entirety of the Christian tradition.
It is in that space, traditionally, that British monarchs have been coronated. It is in that space, traditionally, that so many of them have been buried. It's in that space that the state and ceremonial funerals have often been held, particularly for monarchs or for the consorts of monarchs. But it is very interesting when you think about it, that this is the first genuine state funeral in Britain since 1965 with the death of Sir Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister. But that raises another issue. There have been royals who have died since 1965, and that would include the Queen's mother. But the Queen's mother, known as Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who was the queen consort to King George VI, that is Elizabeth's father. She was a queen consort. She was not herself the monarch. And so her funeral was an official ceremonial funeral, and that means with many of the trappings of a state funeral, but it was not a state funeral, as was the occasion yesterday for Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch, of course, in all of British history.
But then why Winston Churchill? Why a state funeral for a commoner? Now, he was an aristocrat, but he was not royal. Why in the world was there a state funeral in 1965 for Winston Churchill? And thus you're going back 50+ years in order to find that precedent. Well, the answer is, as Queen Elizabeth II made clear, and Winston Churchill was her first prime minister, as Elizabeth answered, "He did, after all, save Western civilization" speaking of his heroic role as the British Prime Minister, particularly during World War II. But what is also faintly remembered, if at all by many people, is that Queen Elizabeth II broke precedent, in one sense broke the royal rules in two ways related to the funeral of Winston Churchill. Number one, it was declared an official state funeral, and thus it had the same elevated status as the funeral that was held yesterday in Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth II, herself.
But Queen Elizabeth did something else with the state funeral of Winston Churchill. She broke royal tradition and she herself, as the reigning monarch, attended the funeral of someone who was not a royal. Not only that, you can find a black and white image, very historic, and to me extremely moving, in which a very young woman dressed entirely in black with her purse held in front of her stands under the towering columns of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, waiting for a body in a casket for a state funeral to enter, and that was the young Queen Elizabeth II breaking with royal tradition to stand there as the casket of Winston Churchill was brought in, in honor of her prime minister, who as she said, had been used to rally England to save civilization. Queen Elizabeth knew something else, of course, and that was the fact that her father, as King George VI, who had unexpectedly become king just before the advent of the tragic events of World War II, she knew that her father, King George VI and Winston Churchill had formed an unlikely but unbreakable bond during the hard years of the war.
It was a way of the Queen honoring not only the former prime minister, but the man who had given such incredibly courageous service unto her father, the King, during so many of Britain's darkest days. Now, in closing minutes, let's take a closer look at the funeral program itself, because it was not something that was just created out of nothing. It was created out of the Christian tradition, out of the reading of Scripture and out of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer. It's venerable service book and book of prayer, that goes all the way back to the era of the Protestant Reformation. There was so much scripture. Now, there were some confusing comments made in the course of yesterday state event, and for that matter, England today is a rather theologically confused place.
More about that in future editions of The Briefing, particularly looking at the religious dimensions of the reign of Britain's new King, King Charles III. But we need to go back to the service because in Westminster Abbey, the service was actually filled with Christian Scripture, readings from the Word of God and the declaration of Christian truth. For example, in the bidding prayer, the Dean of Westminster cited this calling all persons in the cathedral to commend Queen Elizabeth to the care and keeping of Almighty God. And you can say, well, that could sound rather generic. But the very next words are these, "Oh, merciful God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life and whom whosoever believeth shall live, though he die, and whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall not die eternally, who has taught us by the holy Apostle Saint Paul not to be sorry as men without hope, for them that sleep in him."
"We meekly beseech thee, oh Father, to raise us from the dead of sin under the life of righteousness that when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him as our hope in this sister doth, and that at the general resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight and receive that blessing, which thy well beloved son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee saying, Come you blessed, shoulder to my father. Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. Grant this we beseech thee, oh merciful Father through Jesus Christ, our mediator and redeemer. Amen." It's just a reminder of the fact that even though Britain itself right now is a very secular and very confused nation when it comes to spiritual issues, it was reminded in the state funeral yesterday of the solidity and eternal truth of God's word, as those words were heard by multiple millions and they were heard undiluted as they came through scriptural readings.
As yesterday's service came to a close, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself offered the prayer known as the Commendation, and even as all who were there were standing, the Archbishop commended the soul of the departed Queen unto God, her eternal judge, and under Christ her eternal redeemer. The last words of that commendation include such important Christian biblical truths. The prayer goes in this way, "Go forth, oh Christian soul, from this world in the name of God, the Father Almighty who created thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, son of the living God, who suffered for thee, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon thee and anointed thee, in communion with all the blessed saints, an aided by the angels and archangels, and all the armies of the heavenly hosts, may thy portion this day be in peace and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen."
There's so much to see, so much to observe, so much to learn about these great state events, and it is a missed opportunity if we do not pause with so many other issues, certainly demanding our attention to give due consideration to these things, and by the way, I am just thankful to God for the resounding truth of the gospel and the readings of God's word that thundered and echoed through Westminster Abbey, even in a secular age. Perhaps in a secular age, they take on an all new power simply because of how they break through even secular defenses.
As a Christian, I just have to tell you, I was extremely happy to hear such biblical truth declared in the context of a situation in which the Queen, by her own instructions for her funeral, had a final say. It is also interesting to note that yesterday it was released that the British government had been practicing for this funeral for a matter of many years and potentially of decades, with a mockup of the events that took place yesterday held in an abandoned aircraft hanger outside of London. The fact is, I think we can be pretty much assured that that kind of preparation is not being prepared or planned or practiced for our own funeral, but here's the promise of the gospel. Our funeral may be less grand, but as we are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, the promises are just as infinitely powerful and present.
I love the image that is found in the promise of the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation, where in the description of the New Jerusalem, we are told that the kings of the earth will bring into God's New Jerusalem, their treasures. That includes, by the way, the treasures you saw so incredibly depicted and evident yesterday in the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Sometimes we take encouragement in little things. Sometimes we take encouragement in grand things. Those are more rare. One of them took place yesterday. I hope it was helpful today for we as Christians to think about it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Nashville, Tennessee, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.