Winston Churchill's Funeral, Recreated

Half a century after the British leader was laid to rest, parts of London came to a standstill to observe the anniversary of his death.

On Friday, the United Kingdom observed the 50th anniversary of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill's funeral. While anniversaries are typically noted or marked, observed seems more precise here considering both the gravity and extent of the ceremonies held to honor the iconic leader.


AFP attributed the intensity of the festivities to Churchill serving as a "reminder of a faded age of [Britian's] global influence." As Reuters explains, the 1965 funeral for the World War II leader was the largest in the world at the time: "Queen Elizabeth granted him the rare honor of a state funeral and more than 320,000 people filed past his coffin to pay their respects during three days of lying in state."

Leaders from more than 100 countries attended the funeral. But, as the historian Michael Beschloss recalls, President Lyndon Johnson's absence (due to illness) and his failure to dispatch Hubert Humphrey, his newly inaugurated vice president, created a significant media scandal at the time, echoing the controversy surrounding Obama's absence from the recent unity march in Paris:

Some British officials called the president’s refusal to send his No. 2 a deliberate affront. (One far-fetched interpretation was that Johnson, an old F.D.R. acolyte, was paying Churchill back for his failure to attend President Roosevelt’s funeral in 1945.)

Beschloss suggests that the more likely reason for Johnson's absence was that the president, who had suffered a heart attack a decade earlier, worried that he might take a turn for the worse and didn't want his second-in-command traveling overseas at such a moment.

On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed a remembrance for Churchill at Parliament, later laying a wreath at a statue of Churchill at a second ceremony in the House of Commons. "A full 50 years since his funeral, when the cranes along the Thames dipped low and the streets were lined with vast silent crowds," Cameron said, "the sheer brilliance of Winston Churchill remains undimmed."

Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Speaking of the Thames, the Havengore, the ship that carried Churchill's coffin in 1965, was recommissioned to retrace its original journey from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster. This time, it carried members of Churchill's family. Along the way, the Tower Bridge was raised in honor of the occasion, halting traffic in London, and bagpipers played as the HMS Belfast warship fired a four-gun salute.

British news outlets were filled with tributes from Britons who attended the 1965 funeral to testimonies from figures in Churchill's life, ranging from relatives to his family driver. In York, as the BBC reported, the National Railway Museum unveiled its display of "the locomotive—named Winston Churchill—that pulled his funeral train from London to Oxfordshire before his burial."

The outpouring of nostalgia, however, wasn't universally embraced. Among the lamentations for what the loss of Churchill  represented were a number of calls to reevaluate his legacy, which one writer dubbed "The Churchill Myth."