Harry Mount - Nelson Mandela’s funeral may not produce the biggest gatherings ever in Africa. Five million people attended the funeral of President Nasser in Cairo in 1970. In terms of global appeal, though, Mandela is in a different stratosphere – a unique combination of head of state, national icon, tribal leader and a figurehead of forgiveness, peace and racial equality.
It will be tricky to fit the right sort of occasion – with the right mix of mourning and celebration – to the death of such a figure. The plans, as they stand, square the circle pretty well. More than 90 world leaders attended a four-hour memorial service in the 95,000-seat Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. It’s the ideal spot – Soweto was the crucible of the struggle against apartheid and the stadium was the site of Mandela’s last public appearance at the 2010 World Cup. Johannesburg is also where Mandela died, in the pleasant suburb of Houghton.
The funeral may be even trickier to arrange, being held, as it is, in Mandela’s remote village birthplace, Qunu – with only one small access road and a tiny local airport, 20 miles away. Most of the world leaders have been encouraged to leave after today’s memorial service. But some who were particularly close to Mandela – such as the Clinton family – will stay on. Others, such as the Prince of Wales, are coming to the funeral but not to the memorial service.
Mandela’s lying-in-state appears to be the most traditional – and easiest to arrange – part of this unique 10 days of ceremonial mourning. It will take place at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the setting for his presidential inauguration in 1994
The buildings will be given over to VIP visitors; Thursday and Friday will belong to the public, who will be able to view the coffin but not take photographs. On Saturday, Mandela’s body will be flown by military aircraft to Mthatha, in Eastern Cape Province. From there, his coffin will be taken by gun carriage to Qunu – in a symbolic transfer from public to private, the South African flag over his coffin will be changed to a traditional Xhosa blanket. Overnight, Mandela’s family, local chiefs and ANC leaders will stand sentinel over the coffin.
Crucial as these formal, public arrangements are, it’s unlikely that they will provide the enduring images of the occasion. Looking back at the great funerals of the modern age, it is the informal moments that are frozen in our minds.
At Churchill’s funeral in 1965, the moment most mourners recall is when the cranes of London’s dockyards dipped as his coffin was borne up the Thames. It was then the biggest state funeral to date, with 112 world leaders attending, and 350 million people watching the service live throughout Europe. That was still the infancy of the television age. Mandela’s funeral will be watched by hundreds of millions more. It will rank with the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, attended by more than 70 heads of state, including five queens and four kings. It is thought to have been the biggest Christian gathering in history, with four million mourners flocking to Rome.
The Mandela ceremonials don’t follow a pre-set formula – to our eyes, it might seem odd to have a memorial service before a funeral. But even our most formal funerals often have an unscripted element.
Churchill’s funeral was partly based on Nelson’s – he, too, was carried up the Thames in a lead-lined coffin before being carried into St Paul’s; unlike Churchill’s coffin, Nelson’s was filled with distilled wine, an effective embalming fluid.
Jackie Kennedy largely modelled her late husband’s funeral on that of Abraham Lincoln. Only hours after JFK was assassinated, she rang Professor James Robertson, a Civil War historian, and asked him to research Lincoln’s funeral. Robertson rushed to the Library of Congress and trawled through back numbers of Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated to track down woodcuts of Lincoln’s coffin in the East Room of the White House.
British royal state funerals – those of the Queen Mother and George VI among them – have a more formulaic pattern, with a lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Pope John Paul II’s funeral also had built-in, traditional obsequies, from the crushing of the Papal Ring of the Fisherman, to prevent fraudulent posthumous sealing of Vatican documents, to the funeral clothes: a white soutane and alb, a stole and a red chasuble, following Byzantine practice.
On the next rung down from royal and papal funerals are ceremonial funerals, such as Lady Thatcher’s in April. Here, there is greater freedom of interpretation. Lady Thatcher had a church service at St Paul’s, a guard of honour and even more military honours than the Queen Mother or the Princess of Wales, because she was a former head of government. The choice of hymns and the decision to transfer her coffin to a gun carriage at St Clement Danes were entirely her own.
Even in the modern, televised age, where we have got used to the manufactured emotions of performers and manipulated responses of the audience, it is genuine, unrehearsed feeling that hits home. At President Kennedy’s funeral in St Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, the heart-breakingly memorable image is of John F Kennedy Junior’s salute on the steps, as his father’s coffin is carried away. The funeral fell on the day he turned three and his birthday party had to be postponed. Bobby Kennedy’s funeral isn’t remembered so much for the requiem Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, or his burial next to his brother in Arlington National Cemetery. What lingers in the mind is the train that carried his body from New York to Washington. All along the 225-mile route, the public lined the tracks, hand on heart, waving home-made banners, declaring “So long, Bobby”.
The most stirring moments after Diana, Princess of Wales’s death were the unprecedented, instinctive ones. The sea of flowers outside Kensington Palace were something of an informal liturgy. And, for all the ceremonial magnificence, nothing could be as moving as two dignified boys, only 12 and 15 at the time, walking behind a mother’s coffin alongside their father, uncle and grandfather.
But the killing of a 46-year-old serving president, or the violent death of a 36-year-old beautiful princess, are different from Mandela’s death. There is no sense of unfulfilled promise or a premature end. It would be difficult to ask for a fuller life: to die at 95, surrounded by your family and friends, to have done more than can be expected of anybody in a lifetime. Mandela’s memorial service and funeral can’t help but match the ideal of both ceremonies: to mingle celebration with sadness. –The Telegraph