When you look for pomp and ceremony, there are few who do it better than the British. They make state occasions look easy – the opening of Parliament, the sovereign’s birthday, and other moments of ceremony go on as if nothing could be more natural. Maybe that’s to be expected in a country that celebrates a monarchy stretching back a thousand years.
State occasions are different here in our young republic. They tend to be more subdued and perhaps more egalitarian than those carried out by our cousins across the sea. The exception to America’s tendency towards more low key affairs, is the state funeral. It’s the one state occasion when our long ties back to the old world are most on display – and it’s a thing of real beauty.
From the Old Guard flanking the horse-drawn caisson in procession along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, and the muffled roll of the drums if it doesn’t make your breath catch, are you even really alive? The casket, lain on the Lincoln catafalque, in state beneath the arching dome of the Capitol, with average Americans shuffling past, unnaturally quiet in such a massive space, is one of those sights and moments that you never forget.
If you happen to be in the DC are over the next couple of days, do yourself a favor and go observe some of these moments – watch the procession to the Capital, wait for a bit in line to pass through the Rotunda and pay your respects. Even if you had political differences with the departed, its an American experience you owe yourself.
I’ve never seen anything like, nor done anything harder than this week’s wake and funeral for my cousin. They came from across the continent, family I hadn’t seen in years, to stand in a line around the block for just a hug or a handshake, a moment’s respects, and then to shuffle off into the night. The crush of mourners at the church, filling the old sanctuary to capacity and swelling beyond had a certain dream-like quality. Surely it wasn’t possible that so many people had come there, too. There is something about Bach, played heavily on the pipe organ that has the power to both raise the human spirit and reveal the depths of human suffering. A child-sized casket, stark against the lush green of grass and trees just beyond and the forlorn sigh of a father who would never again set mortal eyes on his son, is simply more than a just or a righteous God would allow. Time may dim, but will not erase, these days and these feelings of utter helplessness at a loss too terrible to contemplate. My fervent hope is that his parents endure this senseless suffering and find peace in their time.