What does burying Richard III mean?

Late last week, England laid to rest King Richard III, whose legacy was, shall we say, mixed.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was intensely displeased (with typical British understatement, she called him a “child-killing, wife-slaughtering tyrant who would be on trial if he weren’t 500 years dead”). Most of the current monarchy stayed away, since they officially call him a fraud. It seems Shakespeare did enough bad PR for the guy to keep him controversial. Having an average of one rebellion against your rule per year, even in a small sample size, doesn’t help with the sabermetricians, either.

Why did England turned out to watch? Are they that consumed by their monarchy? Maybe that’s not the whole story.

The bones exhumed from a parking lot belonged to a historically relevant human whom most of England had at least heard of. We also know that he was struck down in battle, so his last moments were probably fraught with anguish – and maybe the burden of regret, if half the stories about him are true.

There’s certainly a fascination with history, and burying Richard allows modern England to reach back and touch a part of their distant past. Of course there is a human element too: Richard was known, which forges a connection that isn’t there for the discovery of most other remains.

Regardless of what one thinks of Richard himself, no one wants the weight of their sins pulling them down across centuries. And certainly no one wants to be buried under a parking lot and forgotten. 

Burying Richard is a show of respect for the dead and for history, but really it’s for the English people; funerals are always for the comfort of living.

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