Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Janet Finch and David Morgan (2002) 'Generations and Heritage: Reflections on the Queen Mother's Funeral'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <>

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Received: 7/5/2002      Accepted: 10/5/2002      Published: 31/5/2002


In this paper we argue that the Queen Mother's funeral provided an opportunity to re-assert the 'Royal Family' in terms of strong cross-generational relationships rather than as a series of, often fragile, couple relationships. The ceremony of the funeral can be seen as successful in linking these inter-generational themes with other themes of national heritage and continuity.

Cross-generational ties; Family; Heritage.

"Behind the gun carriage came in step the late Queen's son-in-law, grandsons and great grandsons, each in his appointed position, as she would have required, not an heir out of place"
(The Times 10th April 2002)

We have selected this quotation as our starting point for this short article on the Queen Mother's funeral because it encapsulates neatly the themes of generations and heritage, which we make our central focus. We are keenly aware that other sociologists might identify different themes, and indeed that some might hold that this event is not worthy of any sociological comment. But for each of us, with our longstanding interests in families, life courses and relationships over time, this particular event encapsulates issues of sociological and cultural importance. As will become apparent, our discussion is based upon a relatively limited number and range of sources and we present this argument in the spirit of an idea worthy of further discussion and possibly systematic research.

The image of the funeral procession on foot, the coffin being followed by "son-in- law, grandsons and great grandsons" taps into cultural imagery of funerals in a powerful way. It is solemn, respectful and dignified. Everything is right and proper, in its place. The family is centre stage, however many other people attend. The funeral therefore was an occasion on which the Royal Family was required to show itself to the world as ' a family'. Our argument is that this opportunity was seized very effectively, and in ways which may have longer term consequences for the image and position of the monarchy.

The effectiveness of the family's performance was the subject of much press comment. For example as Euan Ferguson noted in "The Observer":

"In the end it was The Firm which got it right, exuberantly so"(Observer 7th April 2002)

This is not simply a comment about the choreography of the funeral though, even allowing for the fact that the event had been anticipated for some years in advance, all commentators seemed to agree that it was well-staged. It is, more importantly, an acknowledgement that something changed in the public presentation of this family, and that the result was altogether more successful than it has often been in recent years. There was, as one listened to members of the public being interviewed and read the endlessly repetitive commentaries in the press, an almost audible, collective sigh of relief that the Royal Family was now seen to be 'working' as a family.

We would argue that this came about because the Queen Mother's funeral provided an opportunity to re-assert the "Royal Family" as constituting strong cross-generational relationships, rather than as simply a series of, often fragile, couple relationships. In this respect there is a stark contrast with the public presentation of the Royal Family at the time of Princess Diana's funeral. That occasion was also dignified, moving and well staged. But the family themes were inevitably very different. On that occasion the public emphasis was bound the be upon the marriage which had broken down, on the children who had already semi-lost their mother to divorce and who now were orphaned, on the awkwardness of relationships within a family where a former wife needed to be accorded some continuing place. The family narrative of Diana's funeral was a story about the fragility of couple relationship at the end of the twentieth century.

By contrast the family narrative of the Queen Mother's funeral was that, at the beginning of the twenty first century, what matters is enduring ties across generations. This was no longer the "soap opera" image of the Royal Family, so frequently both criticised by the press and also used to sell newspapers. Soap operas are essentially about coupling. This funeral had altogether different resonances in the imagery of families. It allowed different themes to come to take centre stage: marital relationships may, in late modern times, be increasingly fragile but inter-generational ties continue to be strong if often more complex.

The theme of inter-generational relationships - and the links between these and ideas of national heritage which we explore later - seemed to emerge strongly from the service itself and much of the wider ritual and discussion surrounding this ceremony. It was emphasised, for example, in the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon:

"For her family, that maternal strength - given across the generations to children, grandchildren, great- grand-children - has been a precious gift and blessing. Its loss is keenly felt today. " (The Times Register 10th April 2002).

Actions, in different degrees both ritualistic and personal, by members of these different generations contributed to this sense and were the subject of considerable comment in the media. Thus the Queen made a television address which was defined as both a break with tradition and as personal. Throughout the ceremony much attention was focussed upon The Prince of Wales and his personal grief at the death of his grandmother, his own personal recollections and on his participation, with Princes Andrew and Edward and Viscount Linley, in the vigil in Westminster Hall. Commentators noted that this was a reminder of a similar vigil for King George V in 1936. The emphasis on generations made it possible for Princess Anne -without adverse comment - to breach the gendered conventions of funerals and take a full part in the proceedings alongside her brothers. Moving down another generation, there were the interviews with Princes William and Harry and, in particular, their recollections of the Queen Mother's Ali G impressions. One heavily symbolic representation was the report that the Prince of Wales' wreath had been prepared from flowers picked by William and Harry.

In short, the Archbishop's words were given highly visible representation in the events leading up to the funeral and in the final ceremony itself. Further evidence is to be found in the way in which members of the Royal Family spoke to people in the long queues waiting to file past the Queen Mother's coffin in Westminster Hall. And while the television cameras included a wide range of mourners in their sweep of the Abbey we were constantly brought back to the members of the different generations. We cannot, at this stage, know how much of this cross-generational focus was planned. Less still do we know how many of the other mourners, members of the crowd or those who watched the ceremony on television would have read the event in this way. At this stage all we can do is to note this as a theme that was rarely out of the public gaze.

Various circumstances surrounding the funeral served to reinforce the cross-generational themes. The Queen Mother's death, by any standard, was a "good death". Again, often the implied contrast was with the death of Princess Diana and, to a lesser extent, that of Princess Margaret. It was a non-violent, peaceful death with other family members close at hand. Most of all, as many pointed out, it was after a "good innings" or a "long and happy life". There was no remaining spouse and everything seemed to be particularly favourable for a consideration of ties across generations.

We may also note that the ritual was highly appropriate for such a consideration. References to the past, direct and indirect, were almost too numerous to catalogue whether one is considering the physical settings, the key players or the music. One small example might be the appearance of two Spitfires and a Lancaster bomber in a fly past across the Mall bringing with them strong reminders of the Second World War and the Queen Mother's own role at that time.

All this, it may be noted in passing, was accompanied by a down-playing of couple relationships. As one of "The Times" reporters noted:

"There were, too, shards from the splintered family of a matriarch to whom stability was a high virtue: the Duchess of York, seated well away from her ex-husband and their two daughters; a frail-looking Earl of Snowdon, for 18 years the Queen Mother's son-in-law; and Camilla Parker Bowles, seated with her sister in the aisle a long way from centre stage" (The Times, April 10th 2002)

On this occasion the changing couple relationships which have - from time to time - been presented as threatening the continuing existence of the monarchy were seen to be containable. This is not, it would seem, a family who tries to exclude people whose presence might be an embarrassment to the image of a strong family. Rather, the image is of a family which can cope with change and where, above all, individuals can be accorded their proper place. The sense of everything and everyone being "in place" is very strong in the imagery surrounding these events.

We have suggested that this very successful demonstration of the Royal Family as 'a family which works', accomplished by emphasising generational ties over couple relationships, could have lasting significance. We mean this in two senses. First, it may come to be seen as a decisive moment when the image of the Royal Family took on a different public focus and thereby boosted its own standing. If it can succeed in continuing to place the emphasis on kinship rather than marriage as the core meaning of 'family' in 'Royal Family', then there is a much greater chance of stability in the image. It will of course be under pressure from a media which is bound to be much more interested in coupling than in parenting and grandparenting, but there may well have been a decisive step towards the creation of a broader repertoire of images of Royal Family which provide the basis for a more stable public presentation.

The second sense in which these events may have lasting significance concerns the congruence between the change in the meaning of 'family' in 'Royal Family' and the family experiences of the majority of citizens. In a sense the argument being presented here is part of a more general one which maintains that, in the contemporary British context, family practices are as much to do with inter- generational ties as they are to do with parent-child or couple relationships. This theme may sometimes get lost when the analytical emphasis is on co-habitation and divorce or on "pure- relationships". But these very features of relationships in late modern society serve, in lived experience, to emphasise kinship, generations, and relationships within the family of origin. These are the relationships which endure over time, and they provide the backdrop against which other, less durable, relationships are made and re-made.

The Queen Mother's funeral may therefore turn out to be an occasion on which the Royal Family provided a symbolic demonstration of the power and significance of those family practices which encapsulate continuity over the life course, rather than those which are subject to change. This represents a twist in the story about the Queen Mother's historic contribution to the establishment of the twentieth century version of the Royal Family, a story which usually emphasises her past determination to establish the image of the normal, happy nuclear family household at the heart of this family, following the image of deviance and dissoluteness which surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII.

She did indeed establish such an image very powerfully during her time as Queen, and appears to have supported its continuation during her daughter's reign. However in the end, that image of the Royal Family as a happy nuclear family household could not be contained as the family expanded, and as in adult life the children experienced precisely the same pressures on relationships as other citizens. In the end, it was her funeral that provided the occasion for the focus of the Royal Family to be re-defined. To that extent, her lasting contribution to the definition of the Royal Family may have been in a role more analogous to the working class Mum in Bethnal Green of the 1950s (a time and place with which she was closely identified), who is the pivotal point around which a kin group defines its identity.

Our final points concern the links which we see being constructed between these specific, family-based, generational themes and ideas of national heritage and of history. In other words we are talking about links between two senses of the word "generation", the one specific and relational, the other historical. Links with history are not hard to find in the published reports, especially based on interviews with members of the public:

"It's just an experience, isn't it? We are British, it is all part of our history"("Observer" 7th April 2002)

The idea of "being part of history" occurred frequently in the stated motivations of those who attended the different ceremonies. As has already been mentioned, the accounts frequently saw the Queen Mother's life as linked to the Twentieth Century itself and of bridging radically different eras and conceptions of monarchy. These links to the past also included links to the Empire and in particular, as we have seen, to the Second World War which was part of the experience of many who witnessed or took part in the ceremonies.

More specifically, links were established between the Queen Mother and the many specific generations linked to her and these historical times that have been referred. Again, we hear some of the voices in the crowd:

"My grandmother would have been the same age". (Observer, 7th April 2002)
"I looked up to her. She was like everyone's grandma, she was always there" (The Times, 10th April, 2002).

Archbishop Carey, in his sermon, maintained that the story of the nation and the story of the Queen Mother were inter-twined and this link between different sense of the word "generation" were quite explicit in the final stanza of one of Andrew Motion's two poems:

"...the four generations
which linked with your life
re-winded their span
to childhood again,
and seeing you stand
at the edge of their days,
where if they so wished
you helped give a shape
to slipstreaming time
with a wave of your hand"
(Andrew Motion. The Times Register April 10th 2002)

The important point is that whether we are considering recorded voices of members of the general public, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Poet Laureate we find that the links between the overlapping ideas of generation are achieved almost effortlessly. As in the theoretical statements of the idea of "the life course", the connections are made between individual biography, household changes and history.

Other commentators made the contrast between this integrated, coherent and very traditional ceremony with the more populist funeral of Princess Diana. This, we were often told, is "the sort of thing the British do well". Such an approach allows for some controlled carnivalesque elements (people are not usually permitted to sleep on or block the pavements and exchange jokes with policemen and policewomen while they do so) and some innovations such as the flowers and the occasional ripples of applause from the crowd. The well-rehearsed ceremony combined with the greater informalities of the waiting crowd all went into constructing "a good day out" celebrating the "Best Royal".

Our discussion here is not so much one about ideology (re-assertion of the values of the monarchy, tradition, the family and so on) although it may be about how ideology works. We are talking about an affinity between two sets of themes. The one is to do with an understanding of family in a sense of cross-generational relationships over time and a sense that these might almost become more important (in relative terms at least) as intra- generational ties are seen as coming under threat. This is a theme that appeared frequently and, it would seem, effortlessly in the accounts of the funeral and which was also drawn upon in the lives and experiences of those watching the ceremony on the edge of the route or through television. The other in a sense, or a particular construction of, history. This is a history which has less to do with particular events (although some, such as the Second World War, are given significance) but a more diffuse sense of time passing and of a past increasingly more firmly located into another country.

We are rejecting, therefore, simplistic notions of "a nation united in grief" and recognise the presence of dissenting voices some of which also appeared in the broadsheet newspaper accounts. Our account is, therefore, partial and we recognise that there are many more stories to be told and themes to be pursued. We are simply taking two very prominent themes - cross-generational relationships and a sense or senses of national heritage - and showing how the funeral of the Queen Mother provided the opportunity for the successful weaving together of these two strands.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002