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A month back I wrote on the confusions caused by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who claimed—disputed by Lambeth Palace—that the archbishop of Canterbury had secretly married them in their backyard a few days ahead of the big ceremony at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.

The archbishop’s recent visit to Windsor for the obsequies of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a more straightforward affair. Like a wedding, a royal funeral is a signal cultural moment. For many people, it is the only time they encounter the liturgy. The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was instructive in three ways.

First, the pandemic restrictions were a reminder that a funeral is about praying to God for the deceased. The poignant, even painful, sight of the Queen sitting alone, grieving her husband of 73 years, was surely the most memorable image from the funeral. It is likely that exceptions could have been made for the unique situation of the royal family at Windsor, but the Queen decided that she would mourn as her subjects have had to mourn during the pandemic, with only a few congregants permitted.

Funerals serve multiple purposes, one of which is the gathering of the family, the parish, and the wider community in a time of mourning. Another is the opportunity to extend condolences to the bereaved in person. These aspects have largely been set aside during the pandemic. Yet a funeral with only a few people present is still a funeral: an occasion to worship God, to give thanks for a particular life lived, and to pray for a merciful judgment upon the deceased.

Even before the pandemic, most clergy sometimes had funerals with just a few people. It might be a person, often indigent, discovered dead with no known family or friends. It might be a prisoner, incarcerated for so long that there is no one on the “outside” who knows him. It might be one of those tragic situations where the family thinks it best to bury the dead discreetly. Whatever the circumstances, there is special power in those funerals; God knows what is being done, it is meet and right, and that is enough.

A royal funeral cannot be such a hidden affair, not when televised worldwide. But there was something of that in Prince Philip’s funeral, with only a few dozen present instead of the thousands who would have otherwise taken part.

Second, there was neither preaching nor eulogy. That is such a rare choice today that I cannot remember another example of it. That choice meant that the liturgy—its prayers, biblical readings, hymns—had to speak for itself.

The funeral liturgy always speaks for itself, but we are often distracted by eulogizing the dead. Catholic funeral rites discourage eulogies, but they are often included anyway. Funeral preaching customarily offers at least some comment upon the life of the deceased. A well-preached homily or well-crafted eulogy achieves worthy purposes and sets the life of the departed in the context of the paschal mystery. Nevertheless, we often overlook what the liturgy says when we are speaking ourselves. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s dictum remains valid, namely that we must learn to mean what the liturgy says, rather than force the liturgy to say what we mean. Prince Philip’s funeral was an invitation to mean what the liturgy said.

How better to bury a naval officer than to sing Eternal Father? Could any eulogist improve upon these verses, for those at sea and all those who are in need of salvation? 

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.

Or could there be a better prayer for a prince than the patronal prayer of St. George’s Chapel, reminding the royals of the purpose of their power and worldly honors?

O Lord, who didst give to thy servant Saint George grace to lay aside the fear of man, and to be faithful even unto death: Grant that we, unmindful of worldly honour, may fight the wrong, uphold thy rule, and serve thee to our lives’ end; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christians of all varieties have much to learn from the particular genius of Anglican liturgy. Explicitly sacral language, beautiful in form and profound in substance, is fitting for speaking to God. It elevates not only the mind, but the soul.

Catholics may well have been shocked to see the archbishop and the dean vested in splendid black; for generations Catholic funerals have abandoned that noble tradition in favor of white vestments, all the better to get on with the instant canonization of the dead. 

Not everything in the Anglican tradition is praiseworthy. The arraying of the late duke’s medals on the high altar was dismaying. The altar is not a decorative shelf for the sovereign. It brought to mind, in a quite different context, the ferocious protest of the late primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszynski, whose beatification was announced a few days ago. “We cannot sacrifice God’s things on the altar of Caesar! Non possumus!” he thundered against the communist regime. 

The House of Windsor is not a tyranny, but Caesar’s things—even his very nice things!—do not belong on the altar of God. When high altars cease to be used for the purposes for which they were built, usurping uses abound.

A third noteworthy aspect of the funeral was the recitation of Philip’s titles, from Duke of Edinburgh on down. It is not unusual at royal funerals. Nevertheless, there was a little too much “worldly honor” about it. Much better is the tradition of the Habsburg emperors, who are conveyed to Vienna’s Capuchin church for final burial. The herald bangs on the closed door three times. The Capuchin inside asks, “Who desires entry?” The herald responds with the dozens of titles claimed by the Habsburg throne. 

“We do not know him,” comes the reply. The ritual is repeated with an abbreviated list of titles. “We do not know him.”

A third time the Capuchin asks, “Who desires entry?”

“A mortal and sinful man,” says the herald.

“Then let him enter.” The doors are opened.

It is the only detail of Habsburg funerals that people really remember. At its best, the liturgy speaks powerfully. The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral did that.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.

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