These ceremonial funerals are death-drags on a vast stage set, with us as the deluded extras

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Margaret Thatcher's funeral. Photograph: Getty Images

At the time of Diana Spencer’s funeral in 1997, I remember writing this: “When the corpse of a 36-year-old woman is dragged around town on a cart you have to acknowledge something strange is going on . . .” My concern was to consider the deathdrag as an example of how London acted as a stage set upon which collective fantasies of intimacy with power were being played out. Sixteen years on, the sentence requires only minor adaptation to establish the necessary degree of anthropological estrangement from the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

With Spencer’s funeral, the cortège travelled in a complete revolution – Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, via Trafalgar Square, before heading north for her island interment at Althorp. This death-drag allowed for her corpse symbolically to visit sites of pleasure (the Royal Parks) and power (the Palace of Westminster), while its circular form symbolised her feminine mystique. With Thatcher the death-drag was linear – even phallic – a straightforward spear-chuck from the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the bowels of parliament to St Paul’s.

Thus Thatcher’s corpse took the journey made by living English monarchs when, upon accession, they were required to meet with the aldermen of the City of London and renew its charter. It was decanted into St Clement Danes, before being hauled on by a fresh team of warriors. I say “warriors” advisedly: the key thing about Thatcher’s death-drag was that while it connected temporal power (parliament), with Mammon (the City), and this connection was sanctified by men wearing dresses (the high priests), the set-dressing projected an image of a fallen warrior queen (think Boudicca). Thatcher was said to have sanctioned this route, which allowed her body to draw sustenance for the afterlife from the bronze imago of Churchill and the stone one of Nelson. The crowds who turned out to line the route of the death-drag were – compared to those who witnessed the Spencer charade – sparse. But in both cases the numbers were far lower than the intense pre-mediatisation of the event would’ve led one to expect. In part this has to be a function of positive feedback loop embodied in mass behaviour: a crowd increasingly stays away the more it is told that greater numbers are anticipated. But the failure of people to turn up for Thatcher’s funeral also betokens – or so I like to think – a certain credulousness about the event itself. Intuitively, people grasped that Thatcher’s interment had very little to do with Thatcher or her “legacy”, and everything to do with the parlous state of representative democracy.

Those who did line the route and who applauded – and even cheered – the removal of the boxed corpse from the Temple of the Sky God (an astonishingly infra dig performance for such ardent Churchillians, many of whom, surely, would’ve been aware of the universal hush that attended his death-drag), were as deluded as those who turned their backs on the procession. Their madness was to take the spectacle at face value; in Freudian terms, they saw only its manifest content and were blind to its latent meaning. I would go further – but then I always do – Thatcherites and anti-Thatcherites were co-opted into a fantasy of historical agency, in which their support or lack of it was integral to the sanctifying of the state’s monopoly on violence.

Thatcher’s mystique – contra that of Diana – rested entirely on her deployment, when in office, of internal repression – directed against NUM picket lines, the IRA, poll tax rioters etc – and external violence – primarily enacted in the form of the murders of 323 Argentine sailors (mostly young conscripts). The military honours accorded Thatcher were the recognition by the current holders of the monopoly – the coalition government – of her perceived effectiveness in maintaining this, and their ardent desire that the crowd should see them, by association, as similarly effective monopolists. All so-called opposition MPs who colluded in the deathdrag were complicit in this mass-hypnosis.

The truth is, of course, that Thatcher died a long time ago. She died when she left office. Then, when the Alzheimer’s began to cobweb her synapses, she died again. This tripledeath of Thatcher underscores the dialectic which now achieves a new synthesis. The death-drag passed off without too much trouble, overseen by men (and the odd woman) armed with fully automatic rifles capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.