British people do indulgence exceptionally well. Memories might still linger of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, where thousands of people lined the bank of the River Thames to watch £12m being spent on boats floating, and experienced true excitement when a barge rotated on the spot. Such reactions are intertwined with a celebrity-driven culture, which obsesses over the life and activities of British royals. In June, newspapers covered their front pages with pictures of the new royal baby, the latest idol to be the focus of national attention. Such indulgence is not, however, reserved for living British monarchs. We in the United Kingdom have now demonstrated an impressive capacity for mass expenditure and pageantry for long dead monarchs as well, even ones who have been, for years, denounced in popular culture. Take, for instance, the recent “reburial” of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.
I use the phrase “reburial” with reservation, because when the mortal remains of this fifteenth-century king were put in the ground on March 26, 2015, “re-interment” instead seemed to be the official language of the day. Perhaps, though, “re-enactment” would be a more appropriate description for the week-long “celebrations” that led up to the unveiling of Richard III’s final resting place. However, the remains were buried in a new location – one which remains contested given an ongoing counter claim for the mortal remains to have instead made way for York. For many, these human remains have not been repatriated to their spiritual home at all. So, how exactly should the placement of Richard III’s remains be seen? Was this a solemn occasion, committing a soul to the afterlife, the repatriation of human remains, or instead, was this just an indulgent exercise in generating a tourism hit for Leicester Cathedral and the surrounding area?
To place this in context, the remains of Richard III were discovered in 2012, on the site of a former friary church, long since demolished. Until this point, the location of his remains had been the subject of myth and rumor. Richard had been killed in 1485, the last British king to be killed in battle, in one of the last major military engagements of the War of the Roses. Since his death, Richard was perhaps best remembered, commemorated even, through the works of William Shakespeare. In the playwright’s musings, Richard became well known as a physically deformed monster in both appearance and character, murdering young children in a single-minded pursuit of power. This fictional dramatization of the monarch is the Richard familiar to many.
Despite being ridiculed by Shakespeare, Richard III was, in 2015, celebrated as if he had been among the most loved of all British monarchs. Members of the public queued in the thousands to catch a glimpse of the casket in which the remains of the king were laid. This community of mourners closely mirrored the way in which thousands flocked for the jubilee celebrations a few years earlier. There seemed to be an overwhelming desire among the general public to be part of an event. It is impossible to quantify how many there truly wished to bow their heads in memory of the king, compared to those who just wanted to be able to tell their friends, “I was there.” But, those “paying their respects,” or participating in a collective gawking exercise, were soon to be joined by a global television audience. The British broadcaster Channel 4 presented a week-long series of programs, providing footage of the events surrounding the reburial. While speeches and suits were a feature of the service held within the Cathedral, an inescapable sense persisted: that this was more an exercise in creating an occasion, one “fit for a king” yet designed for a live international television audience.
As the funeral procession was led through the streets of Leicester, Richard’s remains were given due military respect, as an honor guard of mounted troopers followed the path of the coffin. However, in close proximity were two historical re-enactors on horseback: faux-knights. To complement the duality of the day’s funeral procession/pageant, the festivities concluded with a major firework display launched from the rooftop of Leicester Cathedral. Perhaps this celebratory note sat more comfortably with the idea of burying the Shakespearean monster than it had to do with a respectful interment of a lost king. A tone of celebration marked the burial’s conclusion, the likes of which would be considered inappropriate for the burial of a recently deceased individual.
It is certainly hard to imagine that the reburial of any other historical figure would have been melded with such high levels of entertainment. Were this to have been the funeral of a contemporary monarch, while there would be no shortage of grandeur, the introduction of fireworks and costumed performers would have been ridiculed and written off as insensitive. Here, though, the occasion of interment for a centuries-old individual appeared ready made for the amusement of the masses.
Returning to the question posed earlier, considering how we should view this entire event, I would suggest that what was witnessed in Leicester might be better thought of as a “heritage ceremony.” The staged nature of the week’s events, complete with re-enactment and explosive displays, pushed what transpired too far from dignity to be considered a “traditional” funeral. Those close to the Cathedral stressed as well that Richard III had already been buried once, albeit several hundred years earlier. While a formal record of his historical burial had been lost, the archaeological excavations clearly indicated he had indeed been buried before. Therefore, while staged solemnity played its part, the funeral was being re-enacted in the style of a performance. While the assembled crowds might have been left with striking memories, it is perhaps Leicester Cathedral itself that will be the main beneficiary of the proceedings. The extra media attention and tourism footfall generated by the funeral will leave the Cathedral well placed as the final resting place for a controversial and iconic figure, as well as an attraction for visitors for years to come.
The heritage sector is generally comfortable with the display and retention of human remains, yet it has increasingly made peace with the need for repatriation. In the case of Richard III, the wider community instead participated neither in retention and display, or a true repatriation. In this case, the relocation of human remains was part of performance, and one that will economically enhance a locality. Richard the celebrity was instead the focus for entertainment, a macabre spectacle in which a long-dead king could be paraded in front of digital cameras, where crowds could have a unique “selfie” opportunity. It was an episode that left challenging questions unanswered.
From an ethical perspective, was it right to treat these human remains in this manner? Was this really an effort to repatriate a British monarch, or was it more an exercise in tourism, benefiting those who live in Leicester today, far more so than the king himself? Was this an appropriate way to deal with the reburial of Richard, or should there have been less a sense of event, and more a sense of quiet dignity? There is also, perhaps, a larger question about the celebrification of the dead. Should the celebrity status, established by the media or otherwise, impact how we approach such questions? Should a famous five-hundred-year-old corpse be given any more or less attention than the five-hundred-year-old corpse of an unnamed pauper? These questions will no doubt serve as the basis for debate for years to come. What is certain, though, is that earlier this year in Leicester, a king was made a spectacle of, and somewhere during the day, a person was also buried.