Lying in state is a ritual known from antiquity, and the concept is distinct from a state funeral. Although the ceremony is associated today with the death of royalty and other individuals of national importance, in its origins it was a ritual followed by people of all class and status.
The bodies of the dead would be prepared and dressed (or “laid out”), then displayed in a room of the family house for two or three days whilst the burial was arranged and visitors paid their respects.
The delay between death and burial that lying in state entails is said to derive from the need to confirm that death had actually occurred, and that the corpse would not again spring to life.
The nobility and gentry elaborated the general practice of lying in state, at least up to the early nineteenth century. Bodies were displayed with grander furnishings and in a more public place.
But by the later nineteenth century, the practice of lying in state appears to have died out for non-royals, as undertakers began to acquire premises for use as chapels of rest.
Royal funerals, preceded by lyings-in-state, continued to be major events, however. Lyings in state would take place in different buildings, depending on where the death occurred.
For example, after Queen Mary II died in December 1694, her embalmed corpse was taken to Whitehall Palace to lie in state until the funeral in Westminster Abbey on the 5 March 1695.
For many centuries, a central element of royal funeral rites was the display of a wooden effigy of the monarch or consort, fully dressed in royal robes. These would be set on the hearse at the funeral, as a likeness of the deceased.
Medieval, Tudor and Stuart royal effigies can be viewed at Westminster Abbey today. At the funeral of Charles II, no effigy was displayed on the coffin, just a crown on a purple cushion, a precedent followed by succeeding monarchs.
Learn more about how Westminster Hall is used for Lyings-in-State and details of the ceremony.