A Bearer Party of Grenadier Guards carry Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin.
Pool/Max Mumby/Getty Images
Royal funerals have been around for a long time, but they remain a large undertaking.
Funeral companies are expected to follow tradition, but also adapt to unprecedented changes like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Insider spoke to CPJ Field, a company that’s handled multiple royal funerals, about the task.
Royal funerals are a state affair — but what does it actually mean to handle one?
The last royal funeral in the UK was for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, in April 2021. The longest-serving British consort of 73 years, Philip asked for a ceremonial royal funeral as opposed to the state funeral that’s usually given to monarchs and their consorts.
How do you get into the business of a royal family?
CPJ Field, the ninth oldest family business and the oldest funeral director in the UK, has operated since 1690. Having first assisted the funeral of the First Duke of Wellington in 1852, which was the last heraldic state funeral to be held in the UK, the family business was later enlisted to help arrange the funerals of King Edward VII and Queen Victoria. Although it no longer assists with royal funerals, CPJ Field has been a part of the evolving funeral traditions across generations of the royal family.
Queen Victoria’s funeral marked a shift in the way in which royal funerals were carried out, as she requested to be buried “like a soldier’s daughter” — but many of the protocols used in her funeral are standard in state funerals today.
In the 300 years that the Field family has been in the business, maintaining a balance between tradition and modernity has also been an important task.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin (draped in his Royal Standard Flag and bearing his Royal Navy cap, sword and a bouquet of lilies, white roses, freesia and sweet peas) is carried on a specially designed Land Rover Defender hearse during his funeral procession.
Pool/Max Mumby/Getty Images
“It’s very hard as the ninth-oldest family business to let go of [traditions],” Jeremy Field, managing director of CPJ Field, told Insider. “I think the overall patterns of funerals have been very similar … but it is changing.
“Looking at some of the more recent royal funerals — so, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh — there are lots of fixed things that have to happen in a state funeral.”
Funeral preparation follows a set code of conduct, which includes a procession with a gun carriage and military contingents.
“But there’s always an opportunity for a little bit of personality,” Field said. “The obvious example in the case of the Duke of Edinburgh was the personalized Land Rover [hearse] that he designed himself. Those little touches, you can always find something that is relevant to them and their life story.”
Royal undertakers are always prepared
The current funeral directors and undertakers to the royal family, Leverton & Sons, overlooked the funerals of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother, and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Chairman Clive Leverton said that “back in 1991, I had a phone call from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.” He wasn’t approached with a written contract. “It was just a handshake really,” the Guardian previously reported.
Apart from helping to arrange the funeral service, royal undertakers also have responsibilities to plan for a sudden death and keep a special coffin at the ready in case a member of the royal family dies, as reported by Sam Knight in the Guardian.
During the inquest into the death of Diana, Leverton told Jonathan Hough, the counsel to the inquest: “We have some plans for some members of the royal family, and there is an overall operational plan involving repatriation if there is a death abroad — or, say, in Scotland, where road transport would not be practical.”
The pandemic also compelled the royal family to adapt their funeral protocol to England’s third national lockdown. The guest list for Philip’s funeral was cut from 800 to 30 people, with no lying-in-state ceremony for the public.
The coffin of Princess Diana leaves Westminster Abbey after the funeral service on September 6, 1997.
Royal undertakers have to abide by strict procedures following the death of a sovereign, but changes like these have prompted questions about the flexibility of the traditions that have been inherent to royal funerals.
“We’re 300 years old, but compared to the business of being the royal family in the state of the UK, it’s really nothing,” Field said. “They’re kind of more constrained around what they can and can’t do with a state funeral.”
Philip’s death also sparked questions around funeral procedures for the Queen.
Codenamed “Operation London Bridge,” current royal undertakers Leverton & Sons have prepared for any emergency scenarios following the Queen’s death, including keeping a “first call coffin” at the ready.
If she dies abroad, a plane called “the Royal Flight” will take off from Northolt, with the coffin from Leverton & Sons, Knight wrote.
Her state funeral would most likely be held at Westminster Abbey, and would include a procession in London and Windsor and a nationwide two minutes’ silence at midday, as reported in Elle.
Although many royal funeral traditions have stood the test of time, embracing modernity has become a bigger part of the equation in the last century. Royal funeral directors are now tasked with the challenge of abiding by the monarchy’s protocol, while adapting to any unprecedented changes that are thrown at them.
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