6 Truly Bizarre Royal Funeral Rituals From History

From funeral-hijacking, to full-on dress rehearsals.

by JR Thorpe and Shahed Ezaydi
Originally Published: 
Queen Elizabeth II proceeds through the Royal Gallery before the State Opening of Parliament at the ...
WPA Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8 prompted a slew of stories about what happens next, what Operation London Bridge entails, what events have been postponed, and when King Charles’s coronation will likely take place. Everybody from radio stations to news broadcasters have their instructions, the funeral has already been meticulously organised, and yet people probably expect at least one episode of complete chaos when the day finally arrives.

The Queen’s funeral will likely be the largest state funeral anyone of this generation ever witnesses, not least because most monarchies these days don't go on for as long as the Queen has reigned over the UK and the Commonwealth. Leaders from around the world are already confirmed to be attending, as are the Queen’s family (and some of her great-grandchildren, too. )

Traditionally speaking, royal funerals have long been serious political issues and public spectacles. If the leader embodies the nation, how is it supposed to cope with their death? Most historical queens, pharaohs, and emperors have been given funerals that are not just their farewells, but also the pinnacle of tradition and national character. You may want to be laid quietly in the ground, but if tradition insists you be surrounded by wailing mourners and a head of proceedings who asks all the guests whether they think you're a good person or not (a standard of sultan's funerals in the Ottoman Empire), well, you've just got to lump it.

There were, however, certain aspects throughout history that may really surprise you.

Roman Emperors Were Sent Off With Actors, Clowns, & Satyrs

Roman emperors had hugely public send-offs that, for all their sadness, were also extremely funny and weird. They were renowned for the vast trails of people following the funeral procession, from musicians to actors, many of whom didn't exactly behave in a sedate manner. Men dressed as satyrs (goat-footed gods of licentiousness) danced around to keep evil spirits away from the emperor — because their spirit wasn't like other people’s, and would eventually become a god. The satyrs were joined by people either dressed as the emperor's noble ancestors, or carrying representations of them in marble. The historian Suetonius notes that, for the emperor Vespasian's funeral, the famous clown Faco was commissioned to dress up as the emperor himself. He followed after the corpse in procession, mocking Vespasian's infamous parsimoniousness by loudly lamenting the cost of all this opulence and asking prominent citizens whether it would be cheaper just to be thrown in the Tiber.

It's not really surprising that funerals for emperors were so lavish, though. The reality for paupers and criminals at the time was pretty grim; the very poorest in Rome simply had their bodies dumped on the streets. Suetonius again contributes a horrible anecdote about this: Vespasian, before he was dead and being mocked by clowns, had his meal interrupted by a dog running in off the street and dropping a severed human hand under his table. Under those circumstances, you'd want to make your own send-off as elaborate as possible.

Some Ancient Rulers Thought They Shouldn't Have To Die Alone... So They Didn't

The idea of “retainer suicides,” as they're called — the deaths of people surrounding the ruler, so that they could accompany them into the afterlife and keep them in the manner to which they'd become accustomed — shows up in several historical cultures. First Dynasty Egyptian pharaohs were particular fans of the practice, choosing to pack their tombs with hundreds of corpses of servants, as well as royal pets, to make sure their every whim would be served in the afterlife. But it was also seen elsewhere. Shang Dynasty China, for instance, saw its emperors take as many as 350 servants and soldiers with them. Enemies captured in battle could have joined the party, too. (If that's what you classify as a “party.”)

One notable situation in Japanese history takes the idea and twists it a little, though. In 1912, the Emperor Meiji died. The funeral rituals lasted a month and a half, involving many ceremonial elements and a gold and lacquer funeral chariot. But on the day of the actual burial and elegies, General Nogi and his wife, both loyalists to the emperor, committed ritual suicide in order to “accompany the emperor into death.” It was an incident that shocked the nation. Nogi, who had become a national hero by helping to win the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, explained in a letter that he'd lost the Emperor's banner, regarded as an incarnation of Meiji himself, to the enemy in a battle in 1877, and had also lost 59,000 men in the 1904 wars. Meiji had apparently refused Nogi's wish to commit suicide after the second incident, and told Nogi that he could only do it after Meiji himself died.

Royals Who Wanted Assurance That Their Funerals Would Be Perfect Sometimes Held Rehearsals

If you're going to have a lot of circumstance around the death of a monarch or leader, you'll admit the necessity of rehearsals. (The lack of them can backfire badly. Bad preparation for the funeral of Prince Augustus Frederick of England in 1843 meant that Kensington Palace was utterly overwhelmed by the 25,000 people who turned up to see the body in state; they had to build a new staircase out the window of the Prince's room make sure everybody could get out.) But nobody perhaps took it as far as the emperor Charles V, who allegedly attended his own funeral in 1558 just to make sure it went perfectly after he died.

While some people have challenged whether this actually happened, it's alleged that in 1558, Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish king Charles V — extremely debilitated and possibly insane — decided that he wanted to make sure his funeral was going to be just so. Accordingly, he made monks carry black candles and say masses for the souls of his family and, finally, himself, while he himself laid down under a shroud and listened. He died, punctually, the next day. (As the emperor, funeral processions were carried out for him all over his territories, including, in Brussels, one featuring a giant gilded ship, drawn by sea-monsters.)

The Royal Coffin Would Sometimes Get Hijacked By A Person Hoping To Become The New King

There's often a succession issue at the funerals of leaders: if they're dead and their successor is present, who's actually in charge? And if they died before appointing a successor, is a funeral a good place to argue who gets the throne? Anglo-Saxon and late European royal burials both tried to get rid of the problem with what's called the “two bodies of the king” theory: a king or queen, according to it, is made up of both their physical body and some transcendent “essence,” which could be absorbed by their successor after all the funeral rites had been performed without technically leaving a power gap for a second. Yep, that is just as odd as it sounds.

However, some people thought that funerals were the perfect chance to make clear that they were the chosen successor, which meant that, particular in the lengthy funerary processions of European royals in history, there was a funeral-hijacking issue. “Control of the royal corpse and its legacy offered potential successors a considerable strategic advantage,” historian Nicole Marafioti explains. Whoever had the corpse and its various trappings had a good claim to power, and that led to the extremely odd behaviour of the Duke of Bavaria in 1002. In an attempt to be the next Holy Roman Emperor, he kidnapped the corpse of the previous one as it was on its way to be buried.

The poor corpse of Otto III had been transported with armed guards and archbishops for this sort of eventuality. Ever-resourceful, the Duke overcame them, held the archbishops hostage for Otto's sceptre and orb of office, buried bits of Otto in his own territory, and then helped shoulder the coffin to its final destination while carrying the regal jewellery prominently. In those days, drunken eulogies were the least of everybody's problems.

Chinese Emperors Took Figurines Of The Things They'd Enjoyed In Life With Them In Death

After the end of the Shang dynasty's delightful human sacrifice practices (as discussed above), Chinese emperors returned to more portable, more humane, and decidedly more beautiful ways to carry all the things they wanted into the afterlife: terracotta and ceramic models. It was actually a pretty convenient solution to the problem, and resulted in some of the weirdest and coolest funerary art in history.

In the Han dynasty, and from the Tang onwards, Chinese emperors' tombs would be filled with everything they could have possibly wanted in death, including camels, horses, acrobats, mythical beasts, and soldiers. Known as mingqui, these figurines showed the sheer extent of the entourage an emperor viewed as completely normal. The tomb of the Ming Emperor Wang Li had seven cases of figurines, six of which have been destroyed, but the final one has up to 1000 figures in it alone.

European Monarchy Had An Odd Relationship With Mourning Clothes

What to wear when your leader has just died? The idea of black as a mourning material for royal deaths didn't really hit Europe until the 1700s, but it hit hard; after kings and queens died, there was often a huge commercial shortage of black fabric. Before this, mourning dress among commoners was a bit less regulated. All the mourners who showed up for the funeral of Leo V, King of Armenia, who'd died in exile in Paris in 1393, wore white, which was odd but not seen as bizarre or disrespectful.

The bigger issue is often: what do other royals wear? Particularly if they're the heir? The fiddling that has to happen with mourning and showing proper respect, while also accepting the new office, is a very weird one. The new French king Henry II in 1547 had to do a quick-change, wearing a purple mantle (he wasn't permitted to wear black, because, you know, king) to visit the body of his father, then changing out of it immediately he left the chapel.

If you weren't the heir, though, you could get away with some strategic weirdness, particularly if you were a child. For reasons that remain completely unknown, Queen Victoria dressed her seventh child, the 11-year-old Prince Arthur, in a black Scottish Highland kilt costume for his father's funeral. These days, luckily, things may be a bit simpler.

This article was originally published on