Another Notable Funeral at Westminster Abbey

21 September 2022 by Wes Bredenhof

This past Monday was the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.  Like all royal funerals, it was held in the historic church of Westminster Abbey in London.  There has been a church on this site since AD 960.  Building on the present church started in AD 1235.  While her funeral was held there, her body was laid to rest at the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Many other notable people have been buried at Westminster Abbey itself.  One of those is the famous missionary to Africa, David Livingstone.  Most people remember him not for his missionary work, but for getting lost.  Livingstone disappeared for two years while exploring the interior of Africa.  A journalist named Henry Stanley went in search of him.  He succeeded.  Upon meeting the bedraggled Livingstone, he famously said, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

After he recovered from this ordeal, Livingstone went back to missionary work.  However, he was also drawn to continuing to explore the African interior.  He was searching for the source of the Nile River.  While doing this, Livingstone was infected with malaria and also became sick with dysentery.  Livingstone lay languishing in his tent. 

One morning a servant found Livingstone kneeling beside his bed.  He was quiet, not saying a word.  The servant touched him and then realized he was dead.  He had died praying beside his bed. 

Instead of burying Livingstone’s body in Africa, his servants undertook the gargantuan task of bringing him back to England.  They removed his heart and buried it under a tree.  Today, if you travel to Zambia, you can still find the Livingstone Memorial at this spot.  His servants embalmed his body and then transported it over 1600 km to the coast in present-day Tanzania.  There the servants boarded a ship with the body and brought it to England. 

A funeral service was held in Westminster Abbey on April 18, 1874 with many mourners in attendance, including the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.  Livingstone’s body was laid to rest in the nave of the Abbey.  On the gravestone was written, “Brought by faithful hands over land and sea.  Here rests David Livingstone.  Missionary, Traveller, Philanthropist.  Born March 13, 1813.  Died May 1, 1873…For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, to abolish the desolating slave trade of Central Africa….” 

Today his legacy lives on.  Here in Australia, there’s at least one Christian school named for him.  A city in Zambia bears his name, as does a town in Malawi.  There are various Livingstone Streets all over the world.  Public schools are named after him in Vancouver and Winnipeg, and a mountain range in Alberta.  Spiritually, while he wasn’t all that successful as a missionary himself, his efforts did open further doors for the gospel.  While he’s not as well-known as William Wilberforce as an opponent of the slave-trade, he did raise his voice against that injustice.  I’ve never been to Westminster Abbey, but if I ever get there, I’ll be sure to pay my respects at the grave of David Livingstone.      

(Partly adapted from R. Cameron-Smith, The Shark’s Secret and 50 Other Stories)