IIn death as in life, all eyes were on her. Inside the same abbey where she was crowned nearly seven decades ago, this time stood not a hesitant young woman dressed to dazzle, but a small coffin. However, in 2022 as in 1953, it is impossible to look away. In a sea of dark suits, with rather pale faces and very gray hair, it was the coffin that provided the color and the main spectacle: the reds and yellows of the royal standard, the polished gold of the orb and of the scepter and, resting on a purple cushion, the sparkling diamonds and the immaculate sapphire of the crown.
For all the pomp and adornment that preceded this funeral service and would follow it, both in London and later in Windsor – the brocaded uniforms and the muffled drums, the feathered hats and the musical lamentations – it is this draped box that grabbed attention. Her emergence from Westminster Hall shortly after 10.30 a.m., shouldered by men who had sworn to defend the Queen in life, like the sight of the coffin resting on a gun carriage, drawn not by horses but by a column of sailors naval forces, touched a deep corner of the collective memory. There was something ancient, even elemental: young men carrying the bodies of their fallen queen.
The day’s rituals reminded us of things we already knew, but forget or prefer not to talk about – things both about her and about this country. Contemporary Britain understands itself to be largely secular or, if not, then openly multi-denominational. And yet the service at Westminster Abbey was decidedly Christian. The hymns, the readings, the eulogy – all underlined the late monarch’s unwavering faith in Jesus Christ. No inclusive generalities, no ecumenical offerings from leaders of non-Christian creeds: this was a Christian burial for a committed Christian. “Go forward, O Christian soul,” they said to him. Charles once wanted to be known as a Defender of the Faith – in general – but his mother’s funeral confirmed that there would be no change in that. defender of the Faith that she was, and Defender of the Faith that it will be.
There were also reminders of everything that had changed since the coronation and what had remained the same. The 1953 congregation could hardly have imagined that the abbey would one day listen to the devotions offered by two women of color, let alone a female bishop. And yet those who filled the pews nearly 70 years ago would have found many things reassuring and familiar: a predominantly male procession, with only the Queen’s male relatives, except for her daughter, allowed to walk behind the coffin. The women followed in the car.
We already knew that Britain, or more specifically the Palace, was unrivaled when it came to pageantry and ceremony. The choreography was perfect, every step of every red-tuniced guard in sync – even those of the pallbearers carrying their sad burden up the steep steps of St George’s Chapel, Windsor – so the television footage shown around the world was magnificent , regardless of the angle. When a drone looked down, it saw boots moving in unison or flowers arranged around the edges of Windsor’s long promenade in geometrically perfect lines. In the abbey as in the chapel, the choirs produced the sound of heaven. Even the weather complied, the capital under a brilliant blue sky, as if nature itself was impressed by the occasion.
When a rare moment of imperfection occurred – a frog in a cleric’s throat, another churchman dropping a piece of paper – it also provided a helpful reminder. That, despite the presence of kings and queens, presidents and potentates, and despite the splendor, it was still a human event, a family funeral, with all that entails. Glimpses of the disgraced Duke of York banned from wearing the ceremonial uniform authorized to his siblings, the downgraded Prince Harry, or Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, sparked memories that despite All her majesty, the Queen led a family with her fair share of domestic troubles – perhaps more than her fair share. The knots that appeared on Charles’ forehead, the hint of redness around his eyes, reminded us that the new king is also a son grieving the loss of his mother.
And yet, as glorious as the day was, it may not be what many will remember as their farewell to the late monarch. For hundreds of thousands of people, the real farewell began last Wednesday with the state in Westminster Hall. For five long days, around the clock, we watched a popular funeral in slow motion as Britons lined up for the right to say a brief personal goodbye.
Standing in the hall, watching those passing by, was surprisingly fascinating, an endless series of little dramas played out in four or five seconds each. In exquisite silence, the carpeted floor against the sound of footsteps, and with all phones and cameras banned, an old soldier might stop and salute. A young man would cross himself. A couple ducked their heads. A mother and her daughter can curtsy in unison. Then they kept walking, most taking one last look back before heading out into the daylight. Some of them had lined up for 12 or 13 hours just for those few seconds in front of the Queen’s remains. No one said it wasn’t worth it.
Whether it was then, or when military standards dropped as the procession passed the Cenotaph, or when those lining the A30 threw flowers at the royal hearse, or when viewers saw the orb, scepter and crown removed from the coffin before it was lowered into the vault of Windsor Chapel – each time it came, that moment brought with it the same question, though rarely expressed: what were we burying exactly?
One answer has been suggested by the presence at Westminster Abbey of so many world leaders, many of whom have agreed to slum and travel by coach. Few would claim to have done so out of respect for the office of British head of state: rather, they came to London out of very particular admiration for Elizabeth II. She was an invaluable diplomatic asset to Britain. Even an American President might be wooed by the offer of tea with the Queen.
Somehow she pulled off the illusion, appearing to be the figurehead of a great power, wearing what we’ve been reminded is still the “Imperial Crown of State” – even when there is no empire. She pulled off that trick, looking like a plausible successor to Victoria, even the first Queen Elizabeth. It would be bold to predict that King Charles will do the same.
She was also a political asset closer to home. Consider the symbolic power of his handshake with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness or the impact of his advice to Scottish voters to “think very carefully” ahead of the 2014 independence referendum. did she occupy, or who she was, the gravity she had acquired during a reign which had lasted so long that her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill?
This suggests something else that was buried in Windsor. Elizabeth was the last human link in public life to the Second World War, the founding event of modern Britain. Our relationship to this epic event becomes more distant now, a matter of history rather than living memory. With Elizabeth, we may have buried the post-war period.
We will certainly no longer have a head of state who speaks with the moral weight of the war generation. This poses a challenge to the monarchy itself, now bereft of what had been its strongest argument. Much has been said in recent days about the deep, even mystical bond between the people and their sovereign, a bond that seems rooted in a thousand-year-old Britain, or perhaps England. But again, the question arises: was it a connection with the institution of the monarchy, or with Elizabeth herself? If it was primarily the latter, will some of the irrationalities, injustices and costs of a hereditary monarchy now press upon the minds of the public in a way they did not while she lived? ?
Deepest of all is the question contained in all the others. Is it possible that in the Windsor vault lies buried today the one who, more than any other, has served to hold these islands together? The past 10 days have been a vacation from the usual political polarization: admiration for the Queen was one of the few things most people could agree on. It is telling that the new king made such early visits to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. His mother was part of the glue that bound the union. If it turns out to have been Elizabeth’s magic, rather than the crown, it’s unclear how long there will be a United Kingdom over which Charles rules.
Even in non-royal families, funerals serve as healing events, of course – but they can also see the eruption of long-deferred arguments. By burying its matriarch, Britain may finally have to confront what has been buried for so long.