Reflections on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Funeral Service

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it’

Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act 1, Scene IV


If anyone reading this has ever had to design a funeral service, you’re likely to have appreciated how special was the funeral service of the Duke of Edinburgh on Saturday 17th April. Will it ever be surpassed? For UK readers, if you didn’t see it live, it will surely be available for a while on BBC iPlayer. We’ve been told that the service was designed in all its detail by the Duke himself. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I expect that we’ve all learned something about the Duke’s life in the last week, but the design of his funeral service presents opportunity to learn much more, but only if we have the eyes to see.

I became aware that we may be in for a treat when listening to the music before the coffin was loaded onto the Land Rover Defender hearse, designed by the Duke himself. No gun carriage for him, but a humble Land Rover, that quintessentially British workhorse of UK farms and estates.

The three hymn tunes that were played by the military bands before the hearse set off were these: ‘I vow to thee my country’, ‘O Valiant Hearts’ and ‘Jerusalem’. I find it impossible to believe that the Duke was unaware that all three have at one time or another been subject to attempts to ban them in Church of England churches as a result of them not being seen as ‘politically correct’. He cannot have failed, also, to have been aware of how poignant the words of ‘O Valiant Hearts’ would be, on the day of his own funeral:

‘Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.’

In St George’s Chapel, we were treated to more surprises. I wonder how many viewers and listeners had never heard of the Book of Ecclesiasticus from the Apocrypha (also known in some versions as ‘The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach’)? Certainly, the BBC commentator embarrassingly displayed his ignorance, by confusing it with the Book of Ecclesiastes. Many Bibles do not even include the Apocrypha, which is a shame, because Ecclesiasticus is a Biblical jewel. A passage from Ecclesiasticus, albeit a different one, was read out at my own father’s funeral in 1988 and I used the very passage chosen by Prince Philip: Chapter 43: 11-26 for a cold dawn service on a beach on the Isle of Wight in January in 2012; it’s very special. But here’s another mystery: what version was read out by the Dean of Windsor? It is closest to but not, from the Revised English Bible. It is not the King James version, nor the New Revised Standard Version. When Prince Philip read a chosen Bible passage at the fiftieth anniversary of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust in 2003, I remember we all looked at each other, because what he’d read out was not the version we’d given to the Buckingham Palace staff. It turned out that he’d read from the Bible version generally considered to be the children’s Bible: The Good News Bible. But the Good News Bible, apparently a favourite of Prince Philip, doesn’t include the Apocrypha, nor do the International Version or Today’s New International Version. So, can any of my readers solve this mystery, or is the truth that Prince Philip changed one or two words to his liking?

Perhaps most importantly of all, this reading finished with the words:

‘By his own action he achieves his end, and by his word all things are held together.’

Theologically, this tells us that all things are held together by Jesus, the Son of God, the logos from St John’s Gospel. This is the thinking of a man with deeply Christian views, and a man who has studied his Bible in very considerable detail.

I have room for one more mystery: what version of John 11: 21-27 was read out? Having looked at it in detail, I think what Prince Philip has done is to take the Revised English Bible as his basis, but then included some words from the King James Bible, that maybe had particular significance for him, for example from verse 25:

‘he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’

By looking at this, I think he’s right; all the modern translations of this part of the verse are clunky. The Master of his theology, the Duke is showing his very deep understanding of the Bible in its many translations. Some of us suspected this, but this is proof positive of his extraordinary faith; we should all be humbled.

The next shock was the absence of a eulogy; this remarkable man knew that much, probably too much, would be written about him and that those present did not need a slightly cloying hymn of praise to his life; the word eulogy itself is derived from the word to praise. He didn’t want this; what he wanted was a hymn of praise to his God, not to himself. And that was what we all got, through the achingly beautiful music that he chose and the sublime singing.

There are other rather lovely glimpses of his thoughts: the prayer that starts:

O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter……’

This is not just a prayer that is attributed to Sir Frances Drake, but it’s one that was read out at the funeral of his beloved maternal uncle Lord Mountbatten, after his murder by the IRA in September 1979.

So what I think we were offered yesterday, in this extraordinary rarity of a funeral service without a eulogy, was a very public demonstration not of Prince Philip, but of Prince Philip’s Christian faith.

For my part, when the Pipe Major of the Royal Regiment of Scotland played the ‘Lament’, I wondered this: Can there be anyone who has watched this and been unmoved?

Maybe you spotted some other small mystery. If you did, please do share it in the Comments section of this site!
And for those who would like to study the Order of Service, the link is here:

https://www.royal.uk/sites/default/files/media/strictly_under_embargo_until_2230hrs_bst_friday_16th_april_2021_-_the_order_of_service_for_the_funeral_of_the_duke_of_edinburgh.pdf
 
Thank you, Lord, for the example of a man of huge Christian faith!

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