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Westminster Abbey to honour the late Professor Stephen Hawking

On 20 March 2018, Westminster Abbey released a statement that the late Professor Stephen Hawking who passed away on 14 March 2018, would be honoured with a Special Thanksgiving Service, during which his ashes would be interred at the Abbey; a second statement was released on 28 March to confirm that this would now be scheduled to take place on Friday 15 June, with further details to be announced in due course.

The English physicist, cosmologist, author and Founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge, was also former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge from 1979-2009 and from 2009, the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Despite his diagnosis with a rare form of slow-progressive motor neurone disease, he began as a Research Fellow (1965) at the University of Cambridge, becoming Professorial Fellow in Science at Gonville and Caius College (1969), despite having been originally given only two years to live. He won the Adams Prize in 1966. He was the recipient of over a dozen honorary degrees, a Fellow of the Royal Society (1974), Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at the California Institute of Technology (1974) and a member of the US National Academy of Science, being granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour in the United States of America – reflecting on the persecution endured by the astronomer, Galileo Galilei, who was imprisoned by the Catholic church: “In that, I am much more fortunate than some of my forebears in science….  I would definitely have spent much of my career behind bars. This would not have stopped me thinking about the universe, but it would have been much less comfortable for me. I’m proud to have been able to contribute to our understanding of the universe…”

The allusion to Galileo is significant, as it was of personal importance to Professor Hawking to later note that he was born at Oxford on the exact 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death. This is later reflected in the speech given by Hawking on his receiving the Presidential Medal, in which he said with characteristic humility: “It is a great privilege to receive the Medal of Freedom. Freedom is very important for scientists. We need freedom to develop our theories, and further our work.” Professor Hawking’s general works included his A Briefer History of Time, Black Holes and Baby Universe and The Universe in a Nutshell, also writing his My Brief History in which he dealt both with his own intellectual development and the impact of the disease with which he lived, which in turn, led him to major breakthroughs in scientific thought and innumerable achievements. Undoubtedly one of modern Britain’s most brilliant scientific minds, it is fitting that he should come to rest in Westminster Abbey, a living pageant of a thousand years of British history, a coronation church and a hallowed place of burial for not only seventeen monarchs, but also of over three thousand individuals who have each made remarkable contributions to the life history of the nation, including politics, philanthropy and of course, the arts and sciences.

That Professor Hawking was former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics is significant; as the chair was founded in 1663 with money left in the will of the Reverend Henry Lucas, who had been the Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge. The chair of Lucasian Professor was held by Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727) from 1669-1702. Most appropriately as it now happens, Professor Hawking’s remains will be interred at Westminster Abbey near the great tomb of Sir Issac Newton, in the Abbey’s nave. Newton’s genius included his renown as an outstanding mathematician, scientist and astronomer, although he is more popularly associated with the laws of gravity. His monumental tomb, designed by William Kent and J. M Rysbrack, alludes to his remarkable achievements in sculpture, including his invention of the telescope and his seminal work, Principia. Newton was – like Professor Hawking – also elected Fellow of the Royal Society (1672) becoming its President from 1705-27. His funeral at the Abbey was attended by most Fellows of the Royal Society. The tomb of Hawking’s admired Galileo Galilei is incidentally to be found in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr. John Hall, said on 20 March: “It is entirely fitting that the remains of Professor Stephen Hawking are to be buried in the Abbey, near those of distinguished fellow scientists. Sir Issac Newton was buried in the Abbey in 1727. Charles Darwin was buried beside Issac Newton in 1882. Other famous scientists are buried or memorialised nearby, the most recent burials being those of atomic physicists Ernest Rutherford in 1937 and Joseph John Thomson in 1940. We believe it to be vital that science and religion work together to seek to answer the great questions of the mystery or life and the universe”. 

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.