Baroness Thatcher, State Funerals and Ceremonial Funerals

On 9 April, the House of Commons Library issued a timely Standard Note entitled “State and Ceremonial Funerals”, which commenced

“[s]tate funerals are relatively rare, and are sometimes mixed in the popular imagination with other funerals of senior royal figures, which are held in public with ceremonial features but do not constitute state funerals in a formal sense.”

A consequence of their sensitive nature and infrequent occurrence is that there is little documentation regarding state funerals, and the briefing note issued for Members of Parliament provides one of the few authoritative summaries of the relevant provisions, although those parts based upon newspaper reports of the costing of events need to be treated with caution.  Nevertheless, it clarifies the distinction between state funeral and ceremonial funerals and outlines, as far as is known, the associated decision-making processes.  Examples of the arrangements and costs of some state and ceremonial funerals are given, drawing upon official and other sources.   There are, nevertheless, a number of gaps in the information that is in the public domain.

This post summarises the legislative issues highlighted in the Standard Note, supplemented by other material.

State Funerals and Ceremonial Funerals

State funerals are “generally limited to Sovereigns, but may by order of the reigning monarch and by a vote of Parliament providing the fund, be extended to exceptionally distinguished persons.”[1]  The latter includes “civilians of profound achievement, exceptional military leaders, and notable politicians have also been honoured” such as Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, and Sir Winston Churchill.  The Wikipedia entry contains a more comprehensive list.

Factors distinguishing a state funeral from a ceremonial funeral are that the former

  • is authorised by a parliamentary motion; and
  • the gun carriage bearing the coffin to the lying in state is drawn by Royal Navy sailors rather than by horses.

A parliamentary motion is required for state funerals since these are publicly funded, whereas the monarch bears some of the costs for royal ceremonial funerals.  It is reported that Baroness Thatcher’s family is contributing to part of the cost of her ceremonial funeral, and this is subject to a Freedom of Information request

The arrangements re: the gun carriage date from the funeral of Queen Victoria, when “horses that were supposed to pull the gun-carriage became restless standing in the cold and were behaving in a dangerous manner, so . . . . . . . . a team of sailors took over the task of pulling the gun carriage to St George’s Chapel.”

Although state funerals generally include a lying in state in Westminster Hall, this is sometimes a component of ceremonial funerals as well, such as that of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  At the request of Baroness Thatcher, after a short service the body of Baroness Thatcher will rest overnight in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft on the eve of her funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The consent of HM The Queen is required since the Chapel is a Royal Peculiar.

A ceremonial royal funeral is “for those members of the Royal Family who hold high military rank, for the consort of the Sovereign and heir to the throne”[1].  The Standard Note does not qualify the criteria for non-royal ceremonial funerals, nor for the accompaniment of “full military honours”.  Downing Street announced that Baroness Thatcher will have a ceremonial funeral with full military honours at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 April 2013.  Prime ministers are entitled to a 19-gun salute, whereas heads of state receive a full 21-gun salute.

Recall of Parliament  The UK Parliament was recalled on 10 April to mark the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.  The costs associated with this recall are also subject to a Freedom of Information requestThe Standard NoteRecall of Parliament”, published on 11 April 2013, indicates that since 1948, the House of Commons has been recalled during a recess on 25 occasions.  Under Standing Orders, the Speaker of the House of Commons determines whether the House is to be recalled on the basis of representations made by Ministers.  Under the previous Labour administration, Members argued that they, rather than the government, should be able to make representations to the Speaker to recall Parliament.  Although the Labour Government announced proposals to effect this change but these were never implemented. Further information may be found here

The Standing Orders of the House of Lords and of the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast provide for early recall if the circumstances require it.

Urban Myths associated with “alleged odd laws were investigated by the Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team.  These included, inter alia, the idea that anyone who dies in a Royal Palace is eligible for a state funeral.  Neither the team nor the House of Commons authorities[2] could find any trace of such a law, although it noted that under s29 Coroners Act 1988, the Coroner of the Queen’s Household has exclusive jurisdiction over an inquest into the deaths of persons whose bodies are lying within the limits of any of the Queen’s palaces [i.e. including the Palace of Westminster] or within the limits of any other house where Her Majesty is then residing.  However, a state funeral is not mandatory.

There have been at least four deaths in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster: Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh were both executed in the Old Palace yard (and certainly would not have been accorded a state funeral); Prime Minister Spencer Perceval who was shot and died in the lobby of the House, (but whose widow opted for a private funeral); and Sir Alfred Billson who collapsed and died in the House of Commons ‘Aye’ lobby in 1907, while  casting his vote on a sugar duty Bill (presumably what became s2, of the Finance Act 1908. C.16).


The Standard Note states

“[it]he process for deciding when a state funeral should be held for a person other than the Sovereign is relatively unclear, not least since it happens so rarely and at long historical intervals. There is no official process set out in public, but the Sovereign, Prime Minister, and Parliament have been involved in the past.”

Examples are given of the involvement of the monarch and parliament, below, but it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on account of the limited information available.  In the case of Gladstone, on the day of his death Balfour, the Conservative leader in the Commons, took the initiative and requested directions from the Monarch, HC Deb 20 May 1898 vol 58 cc118-32, and moved the motion:

“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to give directions that the remains of the Right Hon. William Ewart Gladstone be interred at the public charge, and that a monument be erected in the Collegiate Church of St. Peter’s, Westminster, with an inscription expressive of the public admiration and attachment, and of the high sense entertained of his rare and splendid gifts, and his devoted labours in Parliament and in great offices of State, and to assure Her Majesty that this House will make good the expenses attending the same.”

This contrasts with the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, where it is clear from the Hansard report that proceedings were initiated by the sovereign, when on the first day that Parliament sat following this death, the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, brought a message from the Queen “signed by Her Majesty’s own hand,” HC Deb 25 January 1965 c667.  This was reflected in the motion moved by Harold Wilson,

“[t]hat a humble Address be presented to her Majesty, humbly to thank her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, Knight of the Garter, to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St Paul and assuring her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures for expressing the affection and admiration in which the memory of this great man is held by this House and all her Majesty’s faithful subjects.”

The Standard Note states that it is unclear whether Cabinet is consulted, or whether the official Opposition is consulted before the announcement of a state funeral takes place. In the case of Churchill, Gladstone and Wellington, Parliamentary approval was sought primarily to authorise funds, but the House did not divide on the motions associated with the decisions to hold their state funerals.

 In some cases, the wishes of the funeral recipient are sought before they pass away, as in the case of Sir Winston Churchill.  Disraeli was reportedly offered a state funeral, but declined the offer in his will. Baroness Thatcher’s spokesman Lord Bell is quoted as saying, “she specifically did not want a state funeral and nor did her family. She particularly did not wish to lie in state as she thought that was not appropriate.” The possibility of a military fly past was discouraged on grounds of cost. The No 10 Press Release  described the choice of ceremonial funeral as “in line with the wishes of her family and with the Queen’s consent.”


The Standard Note summarizes the position regarding costs as

“[t]he practical organisation of state funerals is the responsibility of the Earl Marshall and the College of Arms, although other actors such as parliamentary officials and the police will also be involved. The costs of state funerals are borne by the state. The general authorisation would be made in a motion, probably moved by the Prime Minister, and approved by the House of Commons (because of its financial privilege). The financial prerogative of the Crown means that the motion would have to come from the Government, and it is likely that a Prime Minister would want to lead the debate on a motion that would also express the respect of the House for the deceased. Subsequently, there would have to be a supplementary estimate for the money, which could be rolled in with the other supplementary estimates or taken on its own, and which would likely be moved formally in the name of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.”[3]

Examples of the costs of both state and ceremonial funerals are given, although over 50% of these are from secondary sources, i.e. newspaper reports, and overall only a fragmentary picture is available.  Most of the available authoritative information concerns the ceremonial funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and is included in: parliamentary statements, (the Commons’ share of the lying in state, HC Deb 8 Jul 2002 c657W), budget details from the Metropolitan Police Authority regarding the cost of policing the funeral, here, and responses to Parliamentary Questions Ministry of Defence costs. It is possible, however, that the Freedom of Information requests will yield a more comprehensive picture of the costs incurred in relation to Baroness Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral.

[1] R Allison and S Riddell eds, The Royal Encyclopedia, (Macmillan, London, 1991).

[2] The BBC reported “a spokesman for the House of Commons said: “The people who know about these things here say there is no basis for such a law, not to say it does not exist somewhere in writing”.

[3] Erskine May, 24th ed, 2011, pp716-7, 732-3, and 735-8

2 thoughts on “Baroness Thatcher, State Funerals and Ceremonial Funerals

  1. Re deaths in the Palace of Westminster: Michael Roberts, MP for Cardiff North West and a junior Welsh Office Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first administration, collapsed at the Dispatch Box while replying to an adjournment debate on 10 February 1983. He was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital but everyone suspected that he had, in fact, died instantly and the pronouncement was a polite fiction to avoid the necessity of an inquest being held by the Coroner of the Queen’s Household.

  2. Pingback: Religion and Law round up – 21st April | Law & Religion UK

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