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The Incredible Logistics of State Funerals

Written by Kevin Jennings

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              Nobody likes planning a funeral. At a time when people often feel their most vulnerable, they are required to make numerous logistical decisions involving the type of funeral, when the wake and funeral service will be held, and many more difficult choices. Funeral homes are accustomed to helping people through this process, and ensuring that everything runs as smoothly as possible.

              For as difficult and painful as planning a funeral may be, it pales in comparison to the difficulty of planning a state funeral. Pinning down an average number for a “typical” funeral is nearly impossible, as every individual person’s circumstances vary greatly. However, most funerals range from perhaps a dozen attendees to nearly 300. For a state funeral, you can expect that there will be thousands in attendance. Many of those attendees will also be heads of state or other foreign dignitaries that require a level of security you would not see at a family member’s funeral.

              If you’ve ever been to a planned event featuring a national politician, think for a moment about what that experience may have been like. Perhaps a presidential candidate gave a speech at the college you were attending. Suddenly, the campus you were used to walking around freely was filled with guards, secret service, and metal detectors. The rooftops of the buildings where you attended class had become home to military snipers. Several roads may have even been blocked off entirely as a police convoy escorted the politician safely to their destination.

              Whatever your personal experience and the specific level of security you may have encountered, a state funeral requires orders of magnitude more. Instead of a single individual in need of protection, there are instead hundreds from all over the world. Many of these dignitaries or heads of state may be from countries that aren’t on the best of terms with one another either. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, there are expected to be as many as 500 such individuals which has led to some rather unusual requests and preparations on behalf of the British government.

Planning Ahead

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            What a state funeral looks like and how they are planned will naturally vary by country. However, one thing that often remains common among them is that the heads of state play a larger than average role in planning their own funeral.

              In the United States, a president is actually expected to have their funeral plans in place upon inauguration. That may seem a little extreme, but of the 46 American presidents eight have died in office with five of those being in their first term. That’s about 17% of presidents that have died while in office. Because planning a state funeral is such a huge undertaking and because they are often elaborate affairs, having the president plan their own funeral is intended to take a lot of the pressure and stress away from their family members so that they are not suddenly encumbered with such a huge undertaking on their own.

              Presidential funerals are overseen by the Military District of Washington (MDW), a part of the U.S. Army headquartered in Washington D.C. The MDW has a 138 page planning document that they must strictly adhere to before even addressing the plans submitted by the president. But just how elaborate and detailed can these plans be?

              If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is often viewed as one of if not the most humble president in American history. Well into his 90s, even while he was personally battling cancer, he would spend his days with a hammer in hand helping to build houses for the poor. Far from being the embodiment of opulence and excess, one might expect that Carter’s plans for his funeral might be simple. However, detailed funeral plans that Carter filed with the MDW have emerged and the document is over 400 pages long. That’s over 400 pages of logistical planning for a man who intends to be buried in the front yard of his own home.

              This sort of planning is not exclusive to the United States, either, and Queen Elizabeth took part in much of the planning of her own funeral as well. Since 1760, state funerals have been held at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. However, Elizabeth decided that her funeral should be held at Westminster Abbey. The decision was both because it is a larger venue, and because it is a place of particular importance to her personally. It is where she was crowned, married, and where the Queen Mother’s funeral was held. The queen even helped design the royal hearse that carried her coffin to Buckingham Palace, though her coffin will be transported to Westminster Abbey via the state gun carriage, as is tradition.

              While these decisions about design and the venue are important, it doesn’t begin to touch on the logistics of what the queen’s funeral will look like. Westminster Abbey will be filled to capacity with over 2,000 attendees, and up to 500 of those will be other heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

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Logistical Nightmare

            Among the many logistical issues is the incredible volume of people that will be in attendance both at the funeral and leading up to it. Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was lying in state for four days before her funeral. Though the funeral itself has around 2,000 official guests as well as the crowds that will line to streets to witness the procession to Westminster Abbey, it is estimated that 750,000 people will have visited the coffin while it was lying in state.

              The line for this queue stretched well over 4 miles, and wait times exceeded 24 hours. At times, entrance to the queue had to be closed off due to how long the line had become. Simply planning where the line would go was an undertaking in and of itself, with a 10 mile route being designated and sectioned off. This route was lined with first aid stations to ensure the health and safety of those waiting for extreme periods of time, as well as having over 500 portable toilets brought in to service the line.

 A massive queue like this, particularly one this is subject to being closed and reopened depending on how many were already waiting, requires a massive staff to monitor the line around the clock. In addition to those running the first aid stations, there were over 1,000 stewards and marshals present at all times to maintain the order of the line and to cut off admission to the queue when necessary. There were also 30 religious leaders of various faiths to provide comfort to those waiting in line.

That’s already a lot of staff, designated space, and portable facilities required, and this is largely just for the ordinary citizens. The funeral ceremony itself becomes a lot more complicated, as it will be attended by so many world leaders. At the time of writing this the funeral has not yet taken place and the full list of attendees has not been made available, but many world leaders have confirmed that they will be in attendance. Prime Minister Liz Truss, President Joe Biden, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are among the world leaders that American viewers are likely to be most familiar with, but the full list is truly massive.

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Prime ministers and presidents from countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, India, Germany, South Korea, and Israel are among the many, many world leaders that will be in attendance. As we touched on at the beginning of this episode, every one of these individuals will be used to a certain level of security when traveling. They normally travel from one nation to another by private jet and use helicopters or a convoy of cars to ensure their safety while traveling locally.

For Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, this will not be the case. Having hundreds of heads of state and ambassadors all trying to fly to London using their private planes is logistically impossible. In fact, London’s Heathrow Airport will not be allowing any private jets to land there. Instead, the British government has kindly request that the world’s presidents and prime ministers all travel to London via commercial flights.

Those that are unwilling to fly commercial, which if we’re being honest is probably all of them, are instead directed to schedule their private jets to land at less busy airports. Having landed elsewhere in England, they will not be allowed to travel to London via helicopter. Though this is normally a common way for heads of state to get around quickly, there is expected to be too much air traffic already and so their use of helicopters is strictly forbidden.

As incredibly complex and inconvenient as getting everyone to London is going to be, getting them to the actual funeral is going to put many of these world leaders out of their comfort zones. Because of the incredibly heightened levels of security as well numerous roads being blocked off, it would be impossible for 500 separate convoys of limousines packed with bodyguards to all drive to Westminster Abbey. Instead, Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau are going to have to take the bus.

The distinguished guests will take their cars to a location in west London from which they will take coach buses to Westminster Abbey. Because the funeral is going to be at capacity with so many different guests, each head of state may only bring their spouse with them to the funeral. There is not room for any other family members or private security to accompany them to the ceremony. Technically Biden will be exempt from the buses and is allowed to take his armoured car, nicknamed the Beast, directly to Westminster Abbey, but the majority of attendees will be following this protocol.

After the funeral service, attendees will then be escorted on foot to a reception hosted by England’s Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly. They will then be boarded back onto the buses where they will be returned to their cars. Later that evening, a private service for the queen’s family will take place along with her burial at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

While this is an unusual set of circumstances resulting from the sheer volume of heads of state that will be attending, the type of security required is nothing new. It is at an incredibly massive scale with tighter restrictions than normal, but there is a clear plan in place and London authorities have experience with high security scenarios. However, there is one other logistical hurdle that England has not experienced at a state funeral before: television.

The last state funeral held in London was in 1952, and only the procession was televised, not the actual service. For the first time ever, the BBC will be offering live, uninterrupted coverage of the entire event including the funeral service inside Westminster Abbey. Similar to how a government begins planning a state funeral years in advance, so too have television networks been planning for this occasion for years. Within hours of news of the queen’s death breaking, every major network in the United States had reporters boarding planes en route to London.

Live broadcasting of an event carries its own set of logistics, and for the BBC the stakes couldn’t be higher. It is expected that the funeral will be the most watched broadcast ever, and it is estimated that 4 billion people will tune in to watch. The complicated process of managing a successful live broadcast could be an entire video on its own, and the personnel and equipment required provide an extra layer of logistics that need to work with and around all of the security protocols that will be in place.

Wrap Up

              State funerals are incredibly complex affairs that require years and hundreds of pages of meticulous planning, even for those funerals that are particularly reserved in nature. The more grandiose and elaborate the funeral, the more complicated it becomes. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, it will likely be a long time before the true scale of the logistical complexities of the funeral are known; it’s not like they’re going to publish their detailed security plans before the funeral has actually taken place.

              Beyond the details we do know, the best approximation for how complex an undertaking this is comes from a source within the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, essentially the U.K.’s ministry of foreign affairs. The funeral has been referred to as a “huge-scale operation”, and one of the largest in the history of the United Kingdom. 

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