The first State Funerals in Australia honoured the explorers Robert Burke and William Wills in Melbourne in 1863 after their attempt to cross the continent from south to north ended in failure. Today, State Funerals in Australia more often recognise statesmanship (politicians), and the more human level of endeavour than was the case in the past. This in no way demeans any recipient of a State Funeral, but recognises the modern world and the reality of the fewer truly heroic exemplars in the historic sense of that term.
In some cases, the passing on of the individual fully resonates with the populace – thousands turned out for Burke and Wills. In other cases, the societal reaction may have been more subdued. This in no way invalidates the granting of a State Funeral: State Funerals are not popularity contests. Nor are outpourings of loss the yardstick for the granting of a State Funeral, although such emotion may be palpable among the many attendees. Were it so then most, if not all, politicians would never be granted a State Funeral. A State Funeral is meant formally to acknowledges the service, courage, and endeavour of the individual. Last week, Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, died in Rome. Immediately, both the Victorian and New South Wales Premiers ruled out a State Funeral for the Cardinal.
In Victoria’s case, Daniel Andrews was quick to reference the victims of child sexual abuse to imply the Cardinal’s disqualification from the honour of a State Funeral. This was a shallow attempt to rehash the now discredited and false criminal accusations made against the Cardinal and over which the High Court had fully dealt. But also the Premier (and others) want to widen the claims of culpability against Cardinal Pell – having not “got their man” in the courts, Pell’s detractors want to forever hang the crimes of others around his neck by redrawing him as some sort of ignoble cut-out character of popular fiction. The refusal of a State Funeral being the “reasonable” evidence of his guilt and disqualification.
Through all these turnings, including the Cardinal’s fortitude while being incarcerated for 404 days in solitary confinement before his full exoneration, admirers saw a man who faced his tormenters with grace, humility, and courage. For those who followed his career from the beginning, this was the man they knew and not the contrived depiction drawn by his enemies.
“Be not afraid” – the episcopal motto of Cardinal Pell – stands now as a fitting epitaph for a man of God and becomes a witness to those who would doubt themselves at their own time of trial. Premier Andrews may think he has finished with Cardinal Pell, but the Cardinal’s legacy shines a light on the State of Victoria under this Premier.