I was moved by the Queen’s funeral. Awed, even. From the opening, searing deep chorale solemnity of the first voices as the coffin was borne into Westminster Abbey to ‘The Sentences’ – a seventeenth century piece by composer William Croft that stung with a purity of pain and sorrow, filling the vaults to the rafters of the abbey and the airwaves to Japan and around the world, I was profoundly aware of being in the midst of a truly historical moment.
As a typhoon passed over outside, D and watched much of the procession beforehand, amazed at the precisely calibrated organization and meticulously choreographed sense of occasion as the royal family walked somberly and gravely (almost ridiculously), in sync to Beethoven’s Funeral March (at one point, so hypnotized by the endless repetition of the music, I found myself going up and down the stairs to make herb tea walking in exactly the same stulted rhythm, unconsciously marching myself); transported to a very different, more gilded Britishness than the one I am used to (‘chaotic’, savvy, sarcastic, controversial, at ferociously political loggerheads); for once it felt, temporarily – even if this was only illusory – as if everybody had put everything aside and had reassembled themselves into one body of people concentrating their minds on just one thing: with London closed down, almost the entire country focused on the ceremony and the laying to rest of Elizabeth, there was a unifying sense, even from this distance, of a coming together.
It felt genuinely sad. The more I read about the Queen, the more I (perhaps naively) come to the conclusion that despite the many problems associated with what she represented (still strange using the past tense) – the public financing of the royal family, which many quite rightly see as outrageous; the legacies of colonialism; the inherited privilege and entitlement (and so on and so forth), this was a person of true integrity and decency, who spent her entire life dedicating herself to what she believed in. I respected her consistency. First and foremost, paradoxically, even, given her her great personal wealth, unlike so many who pronounce themselves to be Christians but in fact are not, I believe that in spite of her position, she did not generally condescend to people nor discriminate, but seemed to truly believe that all human beings are equal and worthy of respect ; I did not sense the deep hypocrisy present in so many of the supposedly ‘pious’ and racist and bigoted whose hearts are full of prejudice and hate. While the funeral service, so extraordinary in its choreography, and the BBC’s camerawork, as though, almost, you were watching a film that had been pre-considered (which of course, it had been), and not an event of great significance that was transpiring live before your eyes, with its cold but compassionate lenses moving down slowly from the cloisters onto the lonely coffin lying below, covered gently in simple flowers (at first I found the bouquet underwhelming in its scope, but came to like the naturalness of it; the rosemary especially, entwined with myrtle, roses and carnations – there was a tasteful simplicity), all of this non-contemporaneously and profoundly religious in its use of ancient Christian texts and hymns as well as some truly sublime and exquisite more contemporary organ and choir music, which may have felt alienating to the modern atheistic society of Britain; but at the same time, as the head of the Church Of England it all felt very right for her, personally – her own choices; purifying, cathartic, healing, rather than the sham of morality so often seen by religious zealots with no sincerity of religion their hearts. It was religion as consolation, no matter your own beliefs; magnificent, but also intimate, ecclesiastical public rites that allowed you to spiritually exhale and move on; songs and recitations that were often piercingly melancholy, reminding us ever more keenly of our own mortality and that of the ones we love, including the truly heartrending plaintive piece by the bagpiper that signalled the end of the funeral; an epoch making reign of seventy years ending definitely requiring such a drawn out, fantastical, almost ravishing, grandeur.
The lying in state for such a long period of time was, in my opinion, also remarkably well judged. From the sudden announcement of the death, up in Scotland, to the burial at Windsor, a sufficiently long period of time went by for the news to sink into the minds of the people; the various, televised ceremonies in different cities across the UK reinforcing the reality; the endless queues of people lining up for many hours to be able to walk past the catafalque (a new word in all our vocabularies), at Westminster Hall, hypnotic as it was broadcast live on the BBC like an art installation delineating time, slowing it down, deepening and solidifying the moment, crystallizing the mourning into something slow, considered, contemplatory, happening in real time; you could feel the passage of time; though part of me simultaneously felt sorry for the Queen, simply as a physical human being, being constantly on display in this way (I was very glad it was not an open casket : I remember parading past the waxen perturbment of Ho Chi Minh at his mausoleum in Saigon, the complete lack of personal privacy), this presuming that the Queen really was inside the coffin of course – a thought that occurred to me several times as the body was borne aloft across so many miles, turned, jostled, bumped on gun carriages, returned finally to Windsor – it felt tumultuous, rather than serene, for a recently deceased person to be disturbed and moved about so much: no ordinary person would have so little physical stillness. For this reason alone, I am pleased that she is finally at rest at the mausoleum in St George’s Chapel.
Ultimately, unenviably, it felt that Queen Elizabeth, her actions, her body, almost belonged to the State, truly its servant – hence the public’s ‘right’ to view or imagine her within her coffin, replete and loaded with whatever each member of the public wanted to project onto her embalmed figure. I found the spectacle of the crowds waiting patiently to walk past her quite riveting but also quietly harrowing; the Queen had dignity, but not the solace of peace nor deathly solitude. I felt sorry for her. But the public, of course, understandably, had to mark the moment, a change of monarchs – something that has not happened in most of our lifetimes, and the sheer numbers involved and the logistics required to make this run smoothly without hitch were very impressive. It was as though time had stopped, a National Event unlike any other I have ever witnessed, and so it felt absolutely imperative to be there, at the time of happening, on Monday evening, even just on a screen thousands of miles on the other side of the earth. I was transfixed. The beautiful music chosen at the funeral and the manner in which the whole post-passing was managed, was incredible to behold; it was like being cast back centuries into a history that you forget exists or existed, but was there before you, right in the present. Certain hymns, like ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, took me right back to being a little child when we used to learn it at school, and made me feel quite emotional. Such carefully selected pieces of music touch people deeply; a shared cultural knowledge that you forget lies still within you; the soaring boys’ choir truly reminiscent of angels in heaven. — even if you don’t believe in them.