Saturday, January 23, 2010

Remembering Sir Winston Churchill's Funeral

On January 24, 1965, Great Britain, and the world, lost its greatest statesman.   That day, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War, passed away at the age of 90, in London.   After lying in-state at Westminster Hall, his body was taken in a magnificent procession to the funeral service at St Paul's Cathedral.   Over a million people in London itself, and millions more watching on television, witnessed the incredibly moving event.

This short highlight video was narrated by Churchill's wartime bodyguard, Detective H. Thompson.

In a rather odd coincidence, Sir Winston died on the anniversary of the death of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill.   Lord Randolph died on January 24, 1895.

I was a young child in January of 1965, and Sir Winston's last illness and death were one of the first major international events that I can remember.   A couple of years before his death, I recall watching with my family a wonderful documentary series about Sir Winston called "Winston Churchill: the Valiant Years" (with Churchill's words read by actor Richard Burton).   So I was familiar, at least, with Sir Winston's Second World War career as Prime Minister.   I can still remember its wonderful main title music.

At the time, of course, the funeral coverage was only in black-and-white, so the above color video is fantastic.   What I find particularly moving was the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall: the oldest surviving part of the ancient Westminster Palace.   Seeing the flag-draped coffin atop the catafalque, watched over by British military members, and the passing-by of ordinary Britons on either side--each, in their own way, paying tribute to this great man.   And then witnessing the procession through London's streets to St Paul's, and hearing the funeral music and marveling at the bearing of all the military units from the Royal Navy ratings steering the gun carriage, to the bearskin-topped Grenadier is proof that the British really know how to put together an historic ceremonial event.

As to the service itself, I cannot remember much, except the Irish Guards bearers slowly walking up the long central aisle at St Paul's with their precious burden held high.   I was always afraid one of them would trip and drop the coffin!   And then, there was the playing and singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", as a tribute to Sir Winston's American side, through his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill--the former Jennie Jerome of New York City.  

Lastly, there is definitely one gesture from that funeral day that always moves me to tears.   After the service, as the bearer party brings the coffin aboard a small boat, to take Sir Winston home to the burial site at Bladon, in Oxfordshire (not far from his birthplace at Blenheim Palace), one sees all the cranes at London's Thames-side docks lowered simultaneously, in a spontaneous tribute.   I have one British friend who was also old enough to remember the funeral, and he remembers that moment as well.   You'll see it at the end of the above video.

I do hope that I will be able to visit the UK in the very near future, and visit these sites: Westminster Hall, St Paul's, Blenheim Palace, and Bladon.   I would love to have the chance to visit Sir Winston's gravesite, and tell him "Thank You--thank you for all you did, to save Britain, and Western civilization, from the curse of Hitler and Nazism".  

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill: I call him "The Greatest Briton".   May he Rest In Peace.

1 comment:

  1. And one of the greatest leaders in the history of Western civilization! How fitting, too, that he was "half-American"--the perfect mix of British resolve and Yankee intrepidity (is that a word?). I shudder to think of the cataclysmic consequences had we not had the benefit of his iron will and irrepressible optimism. This is an excellent post! I almost felt present at the passing of a giant.