The PM who was cremated before his funeral

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Neville Chamberlain (above) died from cancer on 9 November 1940, just six months after he resigned as Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill, his successor, paid tribute to him on 12 November despite the two men having disagreed over the ‘appeasement’ of Hitler: 

‘Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged’. 

This was no funeral eulogy but a speech at the House of Commons, the funeral not taking place until 14 November at Westminster Abbey.

But what stands out in this sequence of events is that Chamberlain was cremated at Golders Green on 13 November, the day before the funeral, and with no ceremony and just two members of his household present. See the newspaper announcement here

This break with convention is confirmed in a British Pathe newsreel showing guests arriving at the Abbey ‘to pay homage to the ashes’ of a man of peace — here

It’s easy to assume this order had something to do with London being under constant threat of German bombing raids. The distinguished funeral gathering was deliberately not publicised in advance. Perhaps fuel rations were a consideration: why waste time and money driving from Westminster to Golders Green and then back again for the interment of the ashes?

However, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey had some form in being an unlikely champion of cremation due to limited space in a building much in demand for the interment of notable figures. In 1905, the ashes of actor Sir Henry Irving became the first to be interred at the Abbey. By 1911, the dean was insisting the body of botanist Sir Joseph Hooker be cremated if he was to secure a grave in the nave by Sir Charles Darwin. Hooker’s widow declined and buried him in a churchyard at Kew instead.

The practical approach to Chamberlain’s funeral is not the only reason it compares to the modern trend for simplicity. When Churchill awarded him the Order of the Garter, he declined, stating he would ‘prefer to die plain ‘Mr. Chamberlain’ like my father before me, unadorned by any title’. His grave is marked by a modest stone..


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