Resource: Horatio Nelson's Funeral
Admittedly not the most cheerful of subjects, but being the daughter of a retired funeral director, funeral customs and rites have always interested me. Don’t wave it off as morbidity; the way the dead are treated can tell a lot about a society.
Our hectic times do not allow for mourning and saying good-bye anymore. People aren’t allowed the dignity of breathing their last at home, relatives are far too often dying alone at a hospital, with nobody there to accompany them on their (probably) last way.
I’m of the opinion that funerals are, expression of respect for the deceased aside, mainly a support for the bereaved. It’s the moment when they’ll fully realise that the separation is final. The healing process can begin.
Back to Nelson.
As I’m a little old lady, I still remember Lady Di’s funeral. Yes, yes, I know, people roll their eyes nowadays about this wave of mourning sweeping over the world. Know what? Roll your eyes all you want, I don’t care. I know it’s the “cool” thing to do, a bit like laughing about Britney Spears. Yet she still sells tons of CDs. Ah, the sweet smell of hypocrisy in the morning…
I think this public mourning was important; there was a need for it, and no matter what your thoughts on Lady Di were or are, those who liked her needed to express their feelings. And looking at the following pictures of Nelson’s funeral, you’ll see that “the big do” was neither an invention of the 20th century nor have the journalist writing about “the biggest funeral in Britain ever” done their job. Royal funerals have always been very impressive, but I’d say Nelson’s was on parr with them.
Let’s start with the hearse – which was built to resemble the “Victory”, figure head and flag and all.
A memorial sheet – “Britain’s last tribute of gratitude to her departed HERO, HORATIO VISCOUNT NELSON
This memorial sheet shows the order of the funeral cortege. Position 29 shows seamen of the “Victory” carrying the heavily dammaged flag of the ship. The funeral service at St. Pauls went on for four hours; when men of the Victory’s crew were supposed to cover the coffin with flags, they tore off strips of the large St. George’s flag and put them in their coats or shirts, just above their hearts.
Thousands and thousands of people gathered along the Thames, on the bridges, windows and roofs when Nelson’s body was transported from Greenwich to Whitehall and to the buildings of the Admiralty. Please note in the bottom left corner the man who fell into the water, and how somebody tries to fish out his hat. People were lined up like sardines in a tin, and it’s simply impossible to imagine the atmosphere of that moment.
The funeral cortege arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Twelve seamen of the Victory lifted the coffin from the hearse. Six admirals held a canopy of black velvet, and then Nelson’s body was carried into the cathedral.
Again you can see the mass of people gathering.
People in Britain were hit hard by Nelson’s death – not only because they lost their hero, but also because it was one of those things they simply never considered. Heroes don’t die. It’s nothing they bothered to think about. That’s why it was important to offer the opportunity of public mourning, to send out the signal: “It’s final. Now we have to move on.” Nelson was mourned by people from all walks of life; for one moment, there were no class distinctions – everybody was shocked, even if not everybody was grieving.
The British government, profiting from this major “public relations event”, didn’t cover itself with glory when it came to respecting Nelson’s last wishes; an unpleasant story repeating with Collingwood some years later.
“Gratitude has a short half-life…”