6 months ago

Of funerals . . . of glory and the grave

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Every funeral is a breaking of the heart. Every burial speaks of the sadness at the core of life. When it comes to state funerals, it gets to be something more. A large measure of emptiness sweeps across a country, sometimes across the world.

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in November 1963 gave a rude shock to the world. The reasons were obvious. He was young. And he had been assassinated, which in effect meant the end of Camelot, as his presence in politics at that point of time denoted.

Kennedy's funeral was much more than the burial of a president. It was the celebration of a life, that of a politician who offered hope to his country and perhaps to the wider world. Kennedy had certainly not stamped his legacy on history. But the glamour he and his wife Jacqueline exuded in their thousand days in the White House translated into a fairy tale brought to a rude end in Dallas on that November day.

The elaborate rituals followed at the funeral of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II following her death earlier this month at the age of 96 was for many among the generation whose political instincts began to take shape on 22 November 1963 a reminder of the grandeur in which the funerals of the powerful leave imprints on public sensibilities.

The British monarch's last rites were attended by a hundred-plus global leaders. For the ten days before the burial of the long-reigning monarch, tens of thousands of her subjects as also visitors from abroad filed past the coffin in Westminster Hall.

It was devotion displayed in its innate sincerity to Elizabeth II, even if many among the mourners joining the lengthening queues before Parliament were republicans at heart. The outpouring of grief for the monarch was in very many ways a reminder of the tragedy descending on America when JFK was assassinated. There are people who yet recall where they happened to be when news came in of the shooting in Dallas.

Kennedy's funeral in Washington on 25 November is remembered for the eloquent grief it engendered in his country and around the world. His widow and brothers marched behind the gun carriage conveying his remains to Arlington cemetery.

Behind them were statesmen who had descended on Washington to be part of the funeral --- French President Charles de Gaulle, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, Pakistan Foreign Minister Z.A. Bhutto and a host of others.

The funeral procession was a majestic march from the Capitol to Arlington. In the cold November wind, President Kennedy was placed in his grave. Following the burial, Jacqueline Kennedy lit an eternal lamp on it. It burns to this day. His widow, who died in 1994, rests beside him.

The somber nature of state burials often renders them a quality of the poetic. The burial of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, one of the saddest of happenings in the Middle East, drew a number of world politicians to Cairo.

US President Ronald Reagan sent three former presidents --- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter --- to represent Washington at the funeral. The world's respect for Sadat, as it was for Israel's Yitzhak Rabin years later, was generated by his role as a peacemaker in his volatile region.

Part of the funeral narrative has to do with great individuals who would leave instructions with their families that no pomp and pageantry mark their burials. General De Gaulle wanted no state funeral and no government leader and no overseas representatives to be at his funeral in his country home. His wishes were respected.

And yet the French government under President Georges Pompidou organised a memorial ceremony at Notre Dame cathedral, which was attended by the likes of US President Nixon, Emperor Haile Selassie and Britain's Prince Charles. De Gaulle was buried beside his daughter Anne. His tombstone simply mentions his name and the years of his birth and death. That was humility past compare.

For India, the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964 was trauma at its extreme. Only a few years after an overseas journalist had asked the question, 'After Nehru, Who?' the country's first prime minister had succumbed to ailments brought on by age.

Nehru's state funeral was a celebration of his life by statesmen gathered in Delhi from all over the world --- the Soviet Union's Alexei Kosygin, British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, Ceylon Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Pakistan Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to name a few.

Among the tributes paid to Nehru was a remarkable eulogy by Syed Badrudduja, a reputed orator and leading Muslim politician who had served as mayor of Calcutta and was at the time an influential member of the Lok Sabha.

Winston Churchill's funeral in January 1965 was attended by Queen Elizabeth II along with leaders from as many as 120 nations. Rich tributes were paid to him by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Among foreign leaders who attended the funeral were Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, President Charles de Gaulle and former US President Dwight Eisenhower.

Nelson Mandela's state funeral in December 2013 galvanised a whole world into paying tributes to him. President Obama along with three former US presidents, the presidents of India, Ireland, France and a number of African states, together with prime ministers and royalty from around the world converged on South Africa for the last rites of a foremost statesman of our times.

Decency and dignity in their highest form underline state funerals. It is generally in democracies where a somber, grateful send-off is given the statesman or stateswoman whose life has drawn to an end through ailment or age or sudden tragedy. In the world's less politically enlightened regions, history-making leaders have been denied proper funerals because those who succeeded them in high office have been those who have usurped power. That has been the irony in significant regions of the globe.

The state funeral of Josip Broz Tito in May 1980 was an assemblage of statesmen from all corners of the globe. His Yugoslavia would pass into oblivion after his passing. Yet Tito remains a giant on the historical canvas.

The paths of glory, as the poet Thomas Gray once famously penned, lead but to the grave. They do, of course. But state funerals are often the point where the glory sometimes outlives death, goes beyond the grave, and leaves lasting marks on history.


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