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Mourners bid solemn farewell to Britain's 'Iron Lady,' Margaret Thatcher

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 10:00am

"After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm."

And so it seemed inside St. Paul's Cathedral Wednesday, as more than 2,300 guests from 170 countries stilled their quiet chatter and waited, silently, for the coffin of Margaret Thatcher to enter.

Those words from the Right Rev. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, in many ways summed up the mood within: this was a farewell to a stateswoman and Britain's pioneering first woman prime minister, but also to a very human mother and grandmother now gone to her final rest.

The domed, white marble splendor of St. Paul's, Christopher Wren's masterpiece, only served to remind those within of how insignificant even the greatest of leaders is in the end.

The coffin's solemn arrival was signaled to those waiting inside by the muffled tone of the cathedral clock tolling the hour.

Far from the fierce political debate and fervent protests that raged in Thatcher's life -- and indeed in the nine days since her death -- the coffin was carried quietly in by uniformed members of the armed forces.

Draped in a Union flag and topped with a white flower arrangement, it was placed carefully on a bier directly before the guests of honor at the service, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

They sat across the aisle from Thatcher's children, Mark and Carol, and her grandchildren Michael and Amanda, and next to serving Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife.

A ceremonial mourning sword lay on a red-covered table before the queen, carried in by the Lord Mayor of London.

The royals' red velvet-covered chairs had been the last to be filled, as steadily the cathedral filled to its capacity.

Those who'd taken their places in the tight-packed rows of seats behind and to either side included men in formal military uniform, adorned with gold braid and medals, cardinals with their distinctive red caps, women in elaborate black hats and foreign dignitaries, some in dark suits, others in more distinctive traditional dress.

Grey hair was much in evidence and men outnumbered women -- as was the case by a much greater margin when Thatcher was in office. After all, when she entered Parliament in 1959, she made up part of only 4% who were women.

From time to time during the ceremony, sunlight poured through the windows of the cathedral to glint off the gold mosaic tiles and gilded carvings below the frescoed dome, lit also by gleaming candelabra.

There was no sign within the grand cathedral walls of the tight security outside, with crowds of supporters and a few pockets of protesters kept under the watchful gaze of some 4,000 police officers.

Welcoming the congregation, the Very Rev David Ison, dean of St. Paul's -- who himself earlier this week evoked the lasting anger and hurt felt by some in Britain as a result of Thatcher's policies -- recalled now "her leadership of this nation, her courage, her steadfastness, and her resolve to accomplish what she believed to be right for the common good."

Giving thanks for the country's traditions of freedom, democracy and rule of law, he invited those gathered to pray.

Only twice did a quiet murmur of laughter punctuate the solemn calm of the proceedings, when the Right Rev. Chartres recounted anecdotes which gave a more personal sense of Thatcher's dealings with those she met.

She may not be able to control how she is judged by future generations, but the late prime minister's hand was behind much of the service that marks the end of her physical presence on earth.

As Chartres pointed out, at her request this was not a memorial service, filled with eulogies, but a simple funeral that reflected her disciplined Methodist upbringing as a grocer's daughter in Grantham.

"There is an important place for debating policies and legacy; for assessing the everyday lives of individuals and communities ... but here and today is neither the time nor the place," he said.

"This is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for simple truths which transcend political debate."

Thatcher's granddaughter, Amanda, gave the first reading, her voice clear and steady despite the gravity of the occasion.

Its theme of righteous struggle, "not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the ruler of darkness of this world," was perhaps meant to bring to mind Thatcher's own struggles, first to reach power as a woman in the 1970s, and then to exercise it for the good of her country.

As the Bishop of London said, "In a setting like this ... it is easy to forget the immense hurdles she had to climb."

Cameron, who now leads the Conservative Party that Thatcher headed from 1975 to 1990, gave the second short reading from the King James Bible.

Senior clergy including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also led the congregation in prayers.

The hymns and predominantly English music, chosen by Thatcher and her family, reflected the tastes of a woman Cameron described as a "patriot prime minister" with a "lion-hearted love" of her country.

And at the end of the funeral, as the other illustrious guests filed out -- including serving and former prime ministers, foreign ministers and senior clergy from around the world, as well as many British lawmakers -- the sense was reinforced that this was a farewell to a woman who -- like her or loathe her -- was truly out of the ordinary.

Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were just a few of the familiar faces among the departing guests.

Thatcher's family accompanied her coffin to a London crematorium for a final farewell, before receptions where the dignitaries would gather to discuss their own memories of the politician once known as the "Iron Lady."

As Chartres said, her own family must sometimes struggle to recognize the woman they know in the "mythological figure" created over decades of life in the public eye.

But as her daughter, Carol, said last week, the tributes paid by foreign and British leaders on her death prove that, whatever one's views on her politics, Margaret Thatcher's "place in history is assured."


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