Winston Churchill’s Funeral: The Paths of Glory

Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965. His state funeral, an extraordinary honor, took place six days later.

After reading the bulletin on his death, radio station WABeatleC in New York scrambled for somber classical music. The 60s onslaught stopped for a day, maybe two. That token of respect has never been granted again.

The country watched Churchill’s state funeral. Despite the strangeness of the uniforms and the pageantry the British do better than anyone, Americans felt an eerie reprise of their emotions during John Kennedy’s funeral 14 months before.

We had followed the news flashes on Churchill’s condition for ten days before his death. We respectfully attended to the many eulogies for the man who’d led Britain in the fight against Hitler for 27 months before the US entered the war. We may have regarded this son of an American mother more highly than any people.

Churchill’s death more than Kennedy’s shook me. The past, the certainty of Churchill the politician and author, became a cold, gray now. As the bulletins progressed, I had had time to think calmly about the future, as I hadn’t in the frantic days after Kennedy’s assassination.

The Kennedy funeral – so solemn, so simple – was an assertion of continuity first and foremost: One WWII Navy Lieutenant Commander succeeded another. Secondarily, it marked a commitment to the directions Kennedy had so hesitantly set for his generation – some deeply right as on Civil Rights, some profoundly wrong as on Viet Nam.

Not so with Churchill’s. It seemed a final burst of imperial pageantry in honor of a hero – and he was for all his flaws and failures – who’d outlived his generation and his time. The brilliant crimson illusion of the funeral contrasted with the grainy black & white ‘reality’ of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964), the Beatles first movie.

The cliche of ‘the end of an era’ was self-evident on January 30, 1965.

None of the Big Three who’d huddled in the cold at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 still lived. Churchill’s time center stage had extended well before and beyond his peers. He had been in Parliament for 10 years before Franklin Roosevelt won election to the New York State Senate in 1910. When Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in 1955, Stalin was two years dead, Roosevelt, ten.

His paths as soldier, writer and politician ran from India at the brilliant height of the Raj through the grim, grayness of the empire’s deaccession. No public man had so many times been deeply right as Churchill was on the Nazis and profoundly wrong as he was on the gold standard.

The portraits of his last years – seated outdoors alone at his easel dressed in a top coat and a bowler or caught stroke-addled in a car flashing a V sign – cruelly captured a man marking time. Again and again, I thought of the lines from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1759):

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.