As a material in coffins, “lead helps prevent moisture, preserve the body longer, and prevent odors and toxins from escaping,” said Julie Ann Taddeo, a research professor of history at the University of Maryland. “Her coffin was on display for several days and made the long journey to its final destination.”
Taddeo noted that the extra weight created a need for eight pallbearers rather than the usual six.
Soldiers carry the coffins of dead British monarchs following an incident in 1901 when Queen Victoria’s chariot horses were spooked and her coffin scattered across the street. Winston Churchill, who received the last state funeral in Britain before Elizabeth’s on Monday, also had a lead coffin. It was so heavy that it slipped off the shoulders of some of the cultivators when suspended on a few steps, Lincoln Perkins told the BBC. As it fell on the two “pushing men” behind the coffin to keep it from falling, Perkins shouted to the corpse, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll take care of you.”
“You could literally feel him slide off the shoulders,” Perkins said. “If we had let him down … I don’t know what it would have been, very embarrassing, but we didn’t.”
Elizabeth’s coffin was laid to rest on Monday evening in a vault in the King George VI Memorial Chapel, part of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. She rests next to her parents, sister and her husband Prince Philip, who died last year.
Preservation measures are reminiscent of those used by ancient high-ranking Egyptians, who were placed in chambers rather than buried in the ground and their bodies preserved immaculately. And the ancient rich Egyptians often was buried Dadio said the queen was buried with jewelry, sculptures and other belongings, including a wedding band made of Welsh gold and a pair of pearl earrings.
Such austerity meant that Elizabeth, who was known to embrace austerity and simplicity, was buried with fewer possessions than some of her predecessors; Queen Victoria was buried with her husband’s dressing gown and a cast of his arm, as well as a lock of hair and a photo of her favorite servant, with whom she was rumored to have had an affair, Taddeo said. Elizabeth’s orb, scepter and crown – made up of nearly 3,000 diamonds and dozens of other jewels – were taken from the top of her coffin and placed on an altar where she was buried.
The use of lead in coffins was a “long-standing royal tradition,” said Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. The embalmed body of King Edward I, who died in 1307, was discovered in 1774 well preserved in his marble sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey. Pearson adds that the practice of using lead was adopted by the time of Edward’s death or in the century following.
Earlier kings were not embalmed, he said. The corpse of William the Conqueror, who died in 1087, was so badly decomposed that his bloated stomach burst as priests “attempted to place his body in a stone coffin,” Pearson said. “Mourners ran for the door to escape the putrid stench.”
William’s “swollen bowels burst forth, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the bystanders and the whole crowd.” According to the Benedictine monk Arteric Vitalis Described Anglo-Norman England.