Burying Maggie and Digging Up DickPosted: April 27, 2013
A few weeks ago, Hilary Mantel got in a lot of trouble for talking about royal bodies. The article was not in itself particularly controversial, but its intentional and selective misreading by sections of the media made it so. Recently, the actions of the same media, alongside the apparatus of the state, have facilitated the creation of two new ‘royal’ bodies to get all flustered about: the strange bedfellows of Margaret Thatcher and Richard III.
Most of my research is into funerals. In particular, I’m interested in why our Anglo-Saxon forebears 1,500 years ago buried their dead with large amounts of jewellery. A partial answer to that question is that they did this to recreate their dead as idealised ancestors, dressed in all their finery in the grave. There is nothing new about this interpretation – it’s been the bread and butter of mortuary archaeology for decades. But it’s interesting to see similar processes played out today.
Curiously, our recent ‘royal’ bodies have been created by opposite processes: one’s been put into the ground, the other has been dragged out of it. Covered in all the pomp and finery the state can throw at her, Thatcher sinks into the soil, to many, vindicated. Meanwhile, Richard III emerges somehow not the same villain he was when he went in. Whether they are burying bodies or digging them up, the orchestrators of these performances can achieve for the dead a far more idealised image than they could ever achieve in life. The symbolic power dead bodies have over the living cannot be overestimated. One must not speak ill of the dead, but it it is somehow possible to make them dance to your own tune.
No one can deny that Thatcher’s funeral was a staged, intentional performance, groaning under the weight of ideology. The exhumation of Richard III was also a performance. It was sold to us in a Channel 4 documentary as a bizarrely staged, almost theatrical performance replete with high emotions, staged mysteries and even a smattering of ceremony. A quick look at the Richard III Society’s website should assuage any doubt as to the partiality of the people that funded this work and the motivation they had for doing so.
Although Richard III and Thatcher’s transformations share many parallels, they are not the same in every way. While we have seen the blatant re-packaging of Thatcher as a myth, Richard III has apparently stepped out of mythology and into our world, debunked, and very much corporeal. Or has he, like Thatcher, just become saturated in even more myth through the actions of his body’s current custodians? Either way, once the various factions have finished squabbling over his remains, we’ll inevitably see the creation of yet more, perhaps even televised, mythology in his reinterment.