When a notable figure passes away, their funerals attract as much attention as events in their lives. Many people can remember where they were and what they were doing when learning of the death of a famous figure. It is through their funerals that the public is able to grieve together, with an outpouring of love and admiration. Through watching these memorable services that garner our attention, with their unique processions, eulogies, showings, and intricacies we feel moved, we feel inspired. Read on to learn, and re-visit some of these famous funerals.
Diana, Princess of Wales - The Whole World Mourned
From left: Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Charles Spencer, Prince William and Prince Philip stand as the coffin bearing the body of Princess Diana is taken into Westminster Abbey in London. (AP Photo/John Gaps III, Pool, File)
“Goodbye England’s rose... your candles burned out long before your legend ever will.” Elton John
With 2.5 billion people watching on television and 3 million flocking to the streets of London to line up on the processional route, the funeral of the former Princess of Wales, was one for the history books. It was early Saturday morning, September 6, 1997, Princess Diana’s funeral caravan started from her home of Kensington Palace, making its 4-mile journey to Westminster Abbey. Diana's casket, itself rather simple, was draped in the Royal Standard, and decorated with flowers, and most notably, a card from her son’s Harry and William addressed to “Mummy.” Her casket was followed by her sons, her brother, her ex-husband Prince Charles, her ex-father-in-law Prince Philip, and five representatives from each of 110 charities Diana had supported.
Her public funeral service lasted about an hour and was televised to the world. It was attended by the royal family, political figures and celebrities. Both of her sisters read tributes, Tony Blair did a reading, and of course, Elton John performed “Goodbye England’s Rose,” a new version of his classic song, “Candle in the Wind.” Following Elton’s performance, her brother Charles Spencer read the eulogy. There were prayers, blessings and hymns, making it a very beautiful and touching ceremony. Following the funeral service, her cortege departed Westminster Abbey and she was privately buried later that day on an island on her family’s estate.
While some parts of the ceremony and procession were grand and extravagant, the personalized, private touches really shone through, demonstrating one can combine both public and private aspects of their funeral.
John F. Kennedy - Death of an American President
John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes as the casket of his father, President John F. Kennedy. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy and daughter Caroline Kennedy are accompanied by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (Credit: Dan Farrell/The Daily News)
“May the angels, dear Jack, lead you into paradise." Cardinal Richard Cushing
For three days after John F. Kennedy’s horrific assassination on November 22, 1963, he was laid to rest during a state funeral. After his death, Mrs. Kennedy had chief usher J.B. West follow the details of Lincoln’s 1865 state funeral for her husband. Kennedy's remains were set upon the same catafalque (framework for a coffin) used at Lincoln's funeral in the East Room of the White House.
For 24 hours, his body lay in repose in this room. During this time, only officials, heads of state, and family were able to pay their respects. A private mass was also held for family. The following day, Sunday, November 24th, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was taken to the Capitol rotunda, where more than 250,000 people were able to file past and pay their respects.
On Monday, November 25, the day of the funeral, a horse-drawn caisson carried the casket down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. There, the mourners were waiting, including Mrs. Kennedy, walking with the procession eight blocks to St. Matthew’s Cathedral where the private service was held for 1,200 guests. The solemn procession included military escorts, a band and the symbolic riderless horse. After the service, the caisson carried the president's remains to their final resting place in Arlington Memorial Cemetery, and as the caisson departed the church, John’s son, three-year-old John Jr., stoically saluted his father’s casket, an image that captured the hearts of the world and is one of the most remembered images from the funeral. Looking back, JFK’s funeral incorporated tradition, privacy, and yet also the opportunity for the public to mourn.
Martin Luther King Jr. - Laying an American Hero to rest.
Coretta Scott King and her four children view Martin Luther King's body in Atlanta on April 7, 1968. (source: AP)
“Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.” Martin Luther King Jr., from the “Drum Major” Sermon
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, King’s family provided opportunities for the public to pay their respects for the visionary civil rights activist. There were two services held for Dr. King in Atlanta on April 9. The first funeral was at 10:30 a.m. at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but only able to hold 1,300 people, it was an invitation-only event for family, friends, and other distinguished guests. A second service was held for the public at Morehouse College, Dr. King's alma mater, later that afternoon.
At Mrs. King's request, King eulogized himself with the private service included a tape recording of a sermon Dr. King had preached at Ebenezer, known as the ‘Drum Major’ sermon. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated in or observed the procession and services. Dr. King's casket was carried in a wooden farm wagon drawn by two local mules. Several of his aides walked in front or immediately behind the wagon.
With both private and public services, King’s funeral allowed his family to grieve in peace, while at the same time allowing the public to mourn as well. Also, but having King essentially provide the eulogy himself, it demonstrates that he continued to be a visionary even in death.