I am watching the funeral of Margaret Thatcher online. Aside from the pomp and spectacle of the procession, replete with red-jacketed military, drums, guns, horses, gold braid and a pleasingly vast array of jaunty hats, I have been particularly struck by the short section where the coffin was taken to St Clement Danes before being transferred to the gun carriage.
What we saw from a high-mounted camera was, to the untrained eye, a baffling piece of ritual. The coffin, draped in a Union flag – a familiar enough sight – was walked round in a loop inside the chapel, while old men in purple robes carrying gold sticks, read aloud words including “we have defeated the power of death”. In short, they were up to something really terribly weird.
I have a little history with Christianity: a C of E primary school, so I know my Bible stories and the theory of the thing, and a couple of years feeling my way through a Christian youth group that, in the end, I felt did me more harm than good for a variety of reasons, not all the fault of the organisation.
I consider myself an atheist, albeit a slightly spiritual one. I aspire to being more open-minded than I am. I also studied anthropology at university, and remain totally fascinated by ritual, beliefs that make sense of the world one way or another, and the ways in which meaning is ascribed to arbitrary happenings and objects. And for someone with perhaps a little more insight than your average church-avoider, I still found this pageant remarkably odd.
I happen to be reading a book by Matthew Huston called The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking which deals with, among other things, superstition in various forms. I’ve been reading about how meaning gets imbued into objects and actions by psychological leaps and associations alongside plenty of accessible examples: things that might ‘jinx’ a sporting event, not being willing to swap your childhood teddy for an identical replica, invoking the ‘five-second rule’ when you drop your biscuit (Disaster! You have my sympathies entirely). He’s far more eloquent than I on the subject, so I’ll leave you to look him up should you wish to learn more.
What I could not stop thinking as I watched the very solemn, no doubt dedicated men, perform their ritual with a box full of dead person and their funny clothes and their magic words and their shiny sticks, was that there was nothing to separate it from sports fans and their lucky pants, or the Amazonian tribe chanting around a sick child (on my telly the other day courtesy of that cheeky charmer Bruce Parry, anthropology-adventurer pin-up).
What we think is powerful may well become powerful. The human brain has a natural propensity to draw links between things, perceived causes and effects, and to draw out patterns from random events, and we all – religious or not – experience some aspect of that every day.
This is a performative bit of religion as part of a public funeral, and we accept this socially-sanctioned set of acts and rituals. We scarcely bat an eyelid at the profoundly odd stuff we see as part of it. And frankly, that makes us seem like a bunch of nutters.
But, utter bizarreness notwithstanding, I’m ok with it. Keep your dudes in dresses and your perplexing hats, hang on to the magic words and the peculiar promenade, for I cannot judge you: I’m not abandoning all those dropped biscuits. I’ve got the five-second rule.