It is a difficult business to get a state funeral in Britain. Kings and queens get them and the occasional commoner qualifies. My research indicates that Horatio Nelson, First Viscount Nelson qualified for one in 1806, followed by Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington in 1852. In 1865 Henry Temple, the Third Viscount Palmerston, was so honoured, followed by The Rt Hon William Gladstone (1898). Benjamin Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield, was offered the honour but refused it.

Yet in Australia today state funerals are becoming commonplace. In most states governors, premiers, lieutenant governors and chief justices automatically qualify. The policies of the NSW Government say that government ministers, the President of the Legislative Council, the Speaker of the House of Assembly and the Leader of the Opposition only automatically get a state funeral if they die in office. A former minister, president, speaker or opposition leader gets one in “special circumstances”.

Just as in Britain, a precedent exists for the grant of a state funeral for a deceased distinguished NSW citizen. Henry Lawson was given one in 1922, Professor Sir Edgeworth David in 1934, Sir Alfred Parker in 1935, Wallace Worth in 1960, Dame Mary Gilmore in 1962, Dr Victor Chang in 1992 and Mr John Newman MP in 1994.

More recently the list has been expanded considerably as, in the words of current Premier Morris Iemma, “state funerals have been used increasingly to honour a wider and more representative variety of distinguished citizens.”

Prime Minister John Howard obviously agrees with the Premier about the need to expand the criteria for awarding state funerals. “I think it is appropriate on occasions that people other than former Ministers of the Crown be honoured with state funerals,” Mr Howard said in January when announcing one for the late Kerry Packer. “I think Kerry Packer was a remarkable business and media figure in this country, and if we are to have a broad view of the life of this country, we ought to honour business figures from time to time as well as sporting, political and military figures.”

Up in Queensland Premier Peter Beattie puzzled some of his Labor colleagues when he arranged a state funeral for Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a politician who presided over widespread corruption. There was no criticism for offering one to the crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. The Victorian Premier Steve Bracks confirmed that the political leadership of Australia sees votes or something in the funeral business when he decided the racing car driver Peter Brock should be honoured with a state funeral.

I confess to being puzzled by the fascination with public mourning, so I turned to the internet for inspiration and found the following extracts on a site called Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying:

Broadly shared emotions produce a sense of community. Political regimes have long understood this and have capitalised on the power of state funerals as a mechanism by which to enhance social solidarities and to reaffirm the legitimacy of the power structure.

The degree of public mourning following the deaths of Lady Diana and John F Kennedy Jr led social observers to wonder if grief is an ever-present latent feeling just waiting to be exploited by the political elite, if people’s lives are so empty that they engage in recreational grief … Perhaps individuals are emotive puppets manipulated by the mass media and/or political elite, and people cry because they are shown other people crying for a celebrity.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW