At Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral, an Elegy on Decline and Fall

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a reading next to the coffin of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her funeral service in St. Paul's Cathedral in London on April 17, 2013

No matter how grand a funeral, there is no hiding from its principal message, and the grand funeral of Margaret Thatcher communicated that message more starkly than most. It was not only that the Iron Lady had succumbed, after years of frailty, to extinction, but that row after row of seats at St. Paul’s Cathedral were filled with the once powerful and the might-have-beens. Death may be a great leveler, but so is time.

Was that stooped, snow-capped figure really Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Deputy Prime Minister, whose 1990 resignation triggered her own political demise? (It was.) And a small man, further diminished by age — might he be Henry Kissinger? (Indeed.) U.S. Presidents considered Kissinger indispensable; critics of his 1973 Nobel Peace Prize judged him irredeemable. For decades he was at the center of debate, at the heart of decisionmaking. The April 17 service in London found him queuing amid the rest of the mourners, unnoticed. Showbiz veterans, still familiar but no longer instantly recognizable, rubbed shoulders with former somebodies, trailing their great futures behind them. Absences attracted more attention than presences. Newt Gingrich omitted to wear a formal morning suit. There was no representative from the Obama Administration, there were no Bushes, no Clintons. The most senior-ranking of the U.S. contingent was former Vice President Dick Cheney.

(PHOTOS: Scenes From Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral)

Even the front row of the congregation, reserved for the great and good, read like a cautionary tale devised to illustrate the limits of temporal power. Britain’s Queen, for so long so unchanged, looks delicate. On April 21, she turns 87, the same age as Thatcher at her death. John Major and Gordon Brown, whose tenures as U.K. Prime Minister had already begun to fade in the memory before they even left 10 Downing Street, bookended Tony Blair, as their premierships bookended his administration. Blair lasted almost as long in office as Thatcher and proved almost as controversial a leader, thanks primarily to his decision to stand with the U.S. on Iraq. (“When you decide, you divide,” he remarked, contemplating the street parties that some of Thatcher’s critics held to celebrate her passing.) Since standing down in 2007, he has appeared increasingly marginalized, too tainted to prove effective as Middle East envoy for the Quartet (the U.N., the U.S., the E.U. and Russia), and too toxic to assist the Labour Party he helmed to three election victories in its efforts to return to government.

And in planning her service — she chose every hymn, every reading — Thatcher served up a political memento mori to one funeral guest who might not yet have confronted the reality of his inevitable decline and fall: David Cameron, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister. He found himself required to read a passage from the Bible, John 14:1–6: “Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” In his mouth, the words sounded not like a declaration, but a plea.

Unlike Thatcher, Cameron wrestles to convince voters of his resolve and his own party that he is capable of winning. He failed to gain an outright majority at the elections in 2010 and so governs in coalition with Liberal Democrats, watching support leach from the Tories to the right wing, Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party. Its leader, Nigel Farage, was quick to eulogize Thatcher. If she had continued to set government policy on Europe his party would be unnecessary, he said.

The fierce debate that erupted around Thatcher’s legacy in the days after her April 8 death indicated that many Britons still perceive her influence on government policy and blame or praise her for the shape of modern Britain. A chunk of the expected $15.25 million price tag taxpayers will foot for the funeral went toward security measures that in the event proved unnecessary. The anger has peaked as her opponents understand that they too have suffered a loss: the figure who defined them. The crowds that lined the streets for her cortege clapped as it appeared. Inside the cathedral, the applause sounded like distant rain.