Thatcher’s Funeral: Alternative Suggestions

Gaz Morris
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The late Lady Thatcher can be perhaps most perfectly summed up in an adjective such as ‘divisive’; so much so that, even in death, she’s getting between people.

A recent poll has found that a number of Britons weren’t overly happy about having to shell out public money on a state-funded funeral which ran to over 10 million pounds. Granted, the government probably didn’t want to pluck for the ultra-economy saver funeral package for their beloved Maggie, and the news that Her Majesty will be attending also probably necessitates a bit of pomp and ceremony. Despite all this, the furore over funeral arrangements got me thinking about alternate burial and funerary practices around the world and whether any would be fitting for the Iron Lady as well as being just that little bit different from what everyone would expect. It should be pointed out at this point that I do not mean to suggest alternate burial practices are irreverent to either Mrs T or to the cultures from which the traditions derive; it is, instead, in a spirit of pure, unadulterated curiosity, that I intend to relate some of the more interesting rituals from around the world.

An option that would, to be frank, raise a few eyebrows (though isn’t really applicable owing to the process having to start before death) is that of self-mummification. Practiced by some strains of Japanese Buddhist monks (called Sukushinbutsu) in the late 1800s, self-mummification involved the person preparing their body for the eventual departure of their spirit (hopefully) to enlightenment. To start, the monks would eat only nuts and berries whilst performing intense physical exercise to eliminate any trace of body fat. Next, they would effectively poison themselves through ingesting tea made from barks, berries and plants that would make them void their bowels in the most dramatic ways imaginable – the rationale here was to create a lining on their insides that would deter maggots and bacteria from feasting on the flesh. Finally, they would be sealed in a small, stone chamber and await death. Each day, they would ring a bell to inform monks on the outside that they were still with us and eventually, there would be a day where the bell did not ring. Following this, the monks on the outside would wait for 1,000 days before opening the chamber and seeing whether or not the body had been preserved. Most of the time, it didn’t work, apparently.

Infinitely more likely to be adopted than the way of the Skushinbutsu (though still pretty slim) would be the Ghanaian tradition of using fantasy coffins. In a suburb of the city of Accra, the deceased are buried in coffins shaped in ways to represent the profession or love of the interred; designs include fish, bananas, guitars, coke bottles, cakes and buses. These are then carried through the streets to celebrate the life and achievements of the subject before being buried in the usual way. One has to wonder what shaped coffin would be perfect for Lady Thatcher – her famous pearl necklace, perhaps? Maybe an image of her ubiquitous clutch-bag? Or something a little more daring and risqué? (Answers on a postcard, please.) However, if the combination of a brightly-coloured coffin and ex-premier status doesn’t draw a crowd then you could always opt for a custom from China’s Donghai region (on the east coast, near Nanjing), where strippers are hired to pull in the punters for a public funeral. In this part of China, the amount of people attending the funeral is seen as a reflection on the deceased’s power and influence in life, and therefore the family pulls whatever stunts they can in order to create a lasting impression of the departed. Sex sells some strange things, it seems.

Another practice quite unlikely to be adopted for Lady T is that of exposure, where the body is left in the open to rot or be eaten by the local fauna. This can differ from place to place –going back as far as the ancient Persians (such as those that found Leonidas in the original, non-film version of 300) are structures called Dakhma (known in English as ‘towers of silence’ for reasons I cannot fathom, as this is nothing close to the actual translation) where the dead were left to the elements. Similar structures exist in India and are still used today, though are not employed as frequently due to the vultures and crows that feed on the deceased being poisoned by human medicines consumed before death, notably Diclofenac (a painkiller). The aborigines of Australia had a similar tradition (of exposure, not Diclofenac poisoning), where the dead would be left under leaves and branches until the flesh had rotted away, whereupon the bones of the dead would be painted red and carried around by the family of the deceased for a year as a form of grieving. A further variation on this theme is carried out in Tibet, where the bodies of Tibetan monks are carried out onto the hills and left for the vultures, having served their purpose as a vessel for the soul (which is now presumably reincarnated somewhere). Allegedly, the practice in Tibet comes from the inability of the monks to either bury (because of the stony terrain) or cremate (because of the shortage of trees) the bodies. I think it’s safe to say that Maggie’s funeral involved a little more than dumping her on the roof of a building somewhere or abandoning her on the side of Ben Nevis, though there are doubtless people that might favour this option.

Finally – and, to my mind, most strange of all – is a Malagasy (that is, ‘from Madagascar’) tradition called Famadihana, or ‘the turning of the bones’. Every seven years, family members convene at the tomb of a departed loved one, exhume the body, wrap it in a fresh silk shroud and then dance about with it for a while. This bizarre custom spans from a belief that the dead’s spirit can only join the world of the living once the body is completely decomposed and so, until that point, the family gets together and parties with it as if it were alive. Perhaps in an effort to not be outdone on strangeness, the Catholic Church, which has a growing following on Madagascar, doesn’t object to this practice because it is cultural and not religious. (Perhaps it would be worth the campaigners for gay marriage taking note of this particular point.)

In any event, it is unlikely that any of these elements will be employed for the funeral of any high-status British person in the near future. Still, imagine if they were…

About Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.