As this week has shown, royal funerals are just like their civilian counterparts – a time when family tensions often surface. The potent mix of anger, grief and sibling rivalry will no doubt ensure that the formal funeral of Prince Philip attracts a global audience. I’ll be assessing the funeral style – a niche subject admittedly – but one which has undergone a seismic change in the last few decades …
“Just stick me in the back of a Land Rover and drive me to Windsor” was apparently what Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh wanted for his own funeral. He oversaw the modifications of a Land Rover Defender to carry his coffin; indeed his final adjustments were made to the vehicle in 2019. That, of course, was pre-Covid-19, when he perhaps anticipated a large turnout and full military honours.
Never has a funeral service been under such intense scrutiny. Who will attend, what will they wear, (and will they stand beside each other), has preoccupied media and royalists from around the world.
We know that the guest list of 30, complying with Covid-19 regulations, includes brothers William and Harry, the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex, separated by their cousin, Peter Phillips, on the Queen’s orders. The dress code is mourning dress (not military uniform), all attendees will be wearing face masks.
Less pomp, perhaps, but no less circumstance, this royal funeral reflects that of many civilian ceremonies – where family tensions and sibling rivalry often surface. Anger and grief are a potent, explosive mix. Then there’s always the odd guest who pops up on the day of the funeral to fuel gossip. In the case of Prince Philip’s that is Penny, Countess of Mountbatten. She is frequently described as his “special confidante” and “close friend”… Hmm. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Regardless of the Countess’s actual friendship status, I am sure she will be one of the best dressed in attendance. As for what brooch the Queen will wear – my money is on a gold and ruby piece set with diamonds made Andrew Grima and gifted by Prince Philip to his wife in 1966.
I admit funeral style is a niche subject, but one which fascinates me. In my own experience, like men and buses, funerals often come in unpredictable clusters. The last four I attended, pre-Covid-19, were: a humanist “crem” which was worse than anticipated; the second, a Church of Ireland memorial service, a mix of bonhomie and biography; a Presbyterian oration in which the minister tried to save the congregation from eternal damnation, and a Catholic service defined by song and sisterly love. These may sound like Trip Advisor reviews (in the US such sites exist to rate “morticians”) but as I cast my eye around the mourners, I also deduced the morbid and modish do not necessarily go hand in hand.
If my funeral muses include Jackie O in a Givenchy suit at Arlington Cemetery or Diana in a veiled boater at Princess Grace’s Monagesque memorial, I have often found church style in general wanting, something my mother laments regularly. Sunday “best” is no longer a given. I don’t expect armbands or jet jewellery (the Met Museum’s exhibition “Death Becomes Her” in 2014 traced all manner of grieving garb), but there is a fine line between showing up to remember a friend and toppling on your platform heels as Daphne Guinness did at Alexander McQueen’s stylish service, where Kate Moss wore a fur stole and five-inch stilettos. Indeed the priest was so bemused by the frow (front row) at Gianni Versace’s funeral, which included Naomi Campbell, Sting and Valentino, he reportedly said: “We are gathered here this evening not for a show, but for an act of faith.”
Perhaps, though, this is where society is heading, with the livestreaming of funerals (eg for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin), matched by the rising trend of “tearleading”. Grief is trendy, as is gushing on Instagram about the deceased (I admit I am guilty of this too: I am still in denial about George Michael’s death).
Isabella Blow’s Victorian horse-and-carriage affair with Philip Treacy’s iconic galleon hat atop her coffin.
For the fashion set, it’s clearly a case of there’s no second chance to make a last impression. Who can forget Karl Lagerfeld’s matte black coffin, or that of Yves Saint Laurent decorated with sheaves of wheat – not only symbolic of a long and fruitful life but also of the designer’s predilection for decorating his apartment with bouquets of wheat. Coco Chanel is buried in Lausanne, Switzerland – she designed her headstone with five emblematic lions. Irish Vogue editor Carmel Snow was buried in a Balenciaga suit and Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, insisted Elvis Presley’s How Great Thou Art was played at her regal exit (I will too!), while Joan Rivers wanted a “huge showbiz affair with lights, camera, action.” She got that and more. Some of her most famous lines – “Can we talk?” and “Who are you wearing?”– were printed on the order of service. Isabella Blow said shortly before her death, “A funeral done really well is just like a wedding,” and her penchant for the dramatic was channelled into a Victorian horse-and-carriage affair with Philip Treacy’s iconic galleon hat atop her coffin.
Indeed, several former assistants of Martha Stewart have created Going Out in Style, a US company masterminding everything from a “finale look” (#BuryMeInThis is an actual hashtag) to food, flowers, favours and playlists. It’s something which is catching on in Ireland, says Graham Dowling of third generation funeral directors Carnegies, part of the Fanagans Group, who carry out 25 per cent of Dublin funerals. Responsible for those of Garret Fitzgerald, designer David Collins and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Carnegies’ attention to detail, compassion and finesse contributed to a National Quality Management Systems Award in 2018 – the highest accolade a company can get. There’s no room for any errors in funerals, which are now likely to take place in one day – a break from tradition in Ireland (in lieu of the removal to church in the evening, followed by a service the next day). Cremations are now at 40 per cent and there are an increasing number of female funeral directors, who often assist with the deceased’s hair and make-up details. Carnegies replicates a (decluttered) family living room and comprises three chapels, a Serenity Garden and meeting rooms. Natural daylight, rather than crepuscular gloom, is my overriding impression.
Dowling, or one of his team, can either meet families in their homes to discuss arrangements, or in their private facilities. He has a finely-tuned emotional intelligence and is used to navigating the nuances of grief. In my experience, anger often overrides the initial shock. Evolving with trends (and multi-faith customs), Carnegies offer Irish-made eco-friendly coffins in wicker, willow, pine and water hyacinth in addition to providing customised options. (I liked the stripped pine or water hyacinth). They have also witnessed changes in dress codes. “It’s no longer compulsory to wear black – sometimes family will request attendees wear specific colours.” An Abba dress code was the most original. Also on the rise are AFAs – Advance Funeral Arrangements, “That certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago when many found discussing a funeral very difficult,” says Dowling.
“London Bridge is down” is the AFA for the death of HM The Queen. Plans are held by Buckingham House, the government and the BBC and rehearsals are regular occurrences. The Queen Mother’s plan was euphemistically called Tay Bridge, emulated at Diana’s funeral, while the Duke of Edinburgh’s was Forth Bridge. Rest assured the Queen’s AFA includes ritual and pomp (plus monumental grief), yet let’s hope some of her own wishes are included too. She may, after recent events, be revising the guest list too. As for what to wear, looking at Karl Lagerfeld’s send off, black or white was the style takeaway I’m sticking to in future.
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