Royal coffins, like Queen Elizabeth’s, are decorated with lead.  This is the reason

Royal coffins, like Queen Elizabeth’s, are decorated with lead. This is the reason

Queen Elizabeth II’s final journey from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch to Windsor Castle on Monday weighed down the eight soldiers carrying her coffin—in part because it was loaded with ammunition.

The tradition goes back centuries and began with a practical focus: to help the bodies of dead kings remain pure, especially before modern preservation methods.

Queen Elizabeth II was buried after a historic state funeral

As a material in a casket, “residue helps keep moisture out and preserves the body for a long time and prevents odors and toxins from the corpse from escaping,” said Julie Anne Taddeo, a research professor of history at the University of Maryland. “His coffin was displayed for days and he made the long journey to his resting place.”

Taddeo noted that the added weight created the need for eight carriers instead of the usual six.

Soldiers carrying the coffins of dead British monarchs, following an incident in 1901 when the horses pulling Queen Victoria’s catapult broke down and her coffin nearly spilled onto the road. Winston Churchill, who received the last state funeral in Britain before Elizabeth on Monday, also had a lead-lined coffin. It was so heavy that it slipped off the shoulders of other porters when they had to rest on some steps, one of the porters, Lincoln Perkins, told the BBC. When it fell to the two “pushers” behind to keep the casket from falling, Perkins said, he told the corpse, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll take care of you.”

Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin traveled from Westminster Hall to Wellington Arch and to her resting place, Windsor Castle, for her state funeral on September 19. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

“You can actually hear him sliding off the shoulders,” Perkins said. “If we had dropped him … I don’t know what would have happened, a shame, but we didn’t.”

Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled England for 70 years, dies at the age of 96

Elizabeth’s coffin was buried on Monday evening in the King George VI Memorial Chapel, part of the Church of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. She is resting next to her parents, sister and Prince Philip, her husband, who died last year.

The preservation measures are similar to those used for high-ranking ancient Egyptians, who were also placed in chambers rather than buried in the ground and whose bodies were preserved intact. And when the rich ancient Egyptians were often to be buried with jewels, statues and other items, Taddeo said, the queen was reportedly buried with only her wedding band, made of Welsh gold, and pearl earrings.

That austerity would mean that Elizabeth, who was known to embrace extravagance and openness, was buried with fewer possessions than some of her predecessors; Queen Victoria was buried with her husband’s gown and armband, a lock of hair and a picture of her favorite servant, with whom she was said to have had an affair, Taddeo said. Elizabeth’s obi, scepter and tiara – made of nearly 3,000 diamonds and dozens of other gems – were taken from the top of her coffin and placed on the altar during her burial.

The main line for the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II had more than 250,000 people

The use of lead in coffins is a “long-standing royal tradition,” said Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at the Institute of Archeology at University College London. He said the embalmed corpse of King Edward I, who died in 1307, “was found in 1774 well preserved in his marble sarcophagus” in Westminster Abbey. Pearson added that the practice of using bullets was probably adopted at the time of Edward’s death or in the following century.

The early kings were not anointed, he said. The corpse of William the Conqueror, who died in 1087, was apparently so badly decomposed that his swollen stomach exploded when priests tried to put his body into a “stone coffin that was too small for its bulk,” Pearson said. “Mourners rushed to the door to escape the rotten stench.”

William “the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the men who stood apart from the whole crowd,” according to Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine monk who wrote Anglo-Norman England.