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.
16 responses to “THE QUEEN’S FUNERAL”
Thank you for this beautiful post
Thank you. I wanted to write down my impressions and feelings while it was still fresh but only had ninety minutes before I had to jump in the shower before work to do so – hence it came out rushed and I didn’t have time to even check properly what I had written.
There was just something so huge about the SCALE of it all; the days and days of accompanying the queen’s body and all the shining pageantry that I felt I had to write some of my response to it.
How did you feel during this period?
I watched all day. I couldn’t put into words as eloquently as you have done. Everthing about the funeral was wonderful. The military,horses the Queen’s fell pony with her silk scarf on it’s saddle. The corgis at the door. The floral tributes arranged like a garden along the Long Walk.The pall bearers,the youngest being only 19. Everyone played their part to show the world how respected The Queen was.
My mom was the exact same age as QE and a devoted lifelong fan. Somehow the drama of the British royal family has always been in my very American life. The former prince Harry used to visit my town here in Nepal quite regularly. One morning I sent a basket of freshly made scones to him while he was helping build a local school. But I couldn’t be arsed to go greet him when he arrived by helicopter in the field across from my house. (Hah.)
I watched the funeral proceedings on Sky News Australia, (I had no idea the Aussies were such Royalists.) It was a beautiful ceremony, perfectly planned and impeccably organized. I did get annoyed by cameras being shoved in the royal family’s faces constantly. The scrutiny, nitpicking, and speculation on their attire and expressions by reporters started to get to me. IT IS A FUNERAL, LET THIS FAMILY GRIEVE IN PEACE.
I am glad that the spectacle of the recently Californicated Harkles didn’t overtake this solemn occasion, hopefully some healing took place.
I know Prince Chuck has all the charm and charisma of a wet blanket, but he has always been an ardent environmentalist. Hopefully, he will continue promoting that noble cause as KC III.
I love your royal stance of not being able able to actually walk across the grass to meet H – and yet potentially your scones have TRAVELLED THROUGH A ROYAL BODY. An interesting contrast!
Like you I was authentically impressed by the sheer logistical prowess on display: I know that Operation London Bridge has been in preparation for years, as it would have to be, but it was amazing nonetheless.
I think in recent years, because of the tabloids, whose negativity gets drip fed into what ever gets told me about the UK from our parents and other people, I have had the impression that the country is just a failed state that couldn’t hold a pissup in a brewery now; it’s ‘lawless’, everybody is getting knifed, everything is closing down, the insane identity politics, etc etc etc (because only the pessimistic stories filter through; the New York Times I read also tends to only talk about the disasters of Brexit, the poverty gap, the evils of the empire, and so on) so I think when D and I actually GOT to the country in August, we were very pleasantly surprised. Of course, all of the above problems are real, but on a day to day basis, every town or city we went to had a humming, positive air, people out and about enjoying themselves – there was none of this doom and gloom: I found the country upbeat and in perfect working order (except for all the transport strikes…), my point being that I suppose I had forgotten that the country does actually know how to put on a grand affair, and the execution of the funeral was spectacular and dazzling. They really put on a good show for her.
Deeply moving and poignant words, Neil. I did not see the funeral, but seeing it through your eyes, was very touching.
Hi Tora and thanks. I don’t feel personally deeply bereaved (though there is a hole now, which I am sure a lot of people are feeling); I just got swept along in all the solemn theatricality of it; moved by the sheer numbers of people involved: it was…I wouldn’t call it cognitive dissonance exactly, but it was like a new reality imposed over the current one for a time, totally anachronistic with these centuries old rituals, but just the music in itself went right through you and put you at the centre of death and its reality. Choral music can be so deeply emotive.
Beautiful description of the experience. As I watched on American television, I learned that her bouquet included flowers from her wedding bouquet, flowers, oak leaves, and more from her various homes. Representative of her special life and memories.
Yes I thought that was nice – they almost looked ‘thrown together’ at first rather than the pristine white, more impersonal bouquet you might expect in this situation, but I think the flowers actually added to the touching personalized feeling that this was indeed an individual, who had her own life.
Lovely writing. I too was rather transfixed, from the day it was announced she was seriously ill (and died) to the end of Monday’s funeral. I’m no royalist, but she had been part of my parents’ lives and mine (I got to go to the palace as an unwilling teenager in the late 70s in a dress and hat and gloves—the horror—as my father received an honour). I remember storming out of our living room in teenage disgust when they had Charles and Diana’s wedding on TV.
But ritual and pageantry have always held me in thrall. I stood on a Tokyo street for hours in the pouring rain on a freezing February day in 1989 to catch a glimpse of the Emperor Showa in his hearse, and followed the people into the area they had opened in the Imperial Palace. Like you, it felt personal this week; the week before the queen died, I had been around Balmoral and Ballater (staying in Braemar) on holiday for the second year in a row. After a picnic lunch at the Queen’s cabin, where anyone can sit on the steps, in the ancient Caledonian forest of Ballochbuie (part of the Balmoral/Invercauld estate), we bumped into Prince William, fishing with buddies. (The people we rented our cottage from said the last time they saw Wills was when they were in a sauna in Ballater with Diana! I didn’t ask for details…). The place was fresh in our minds when the news broke.
What put me in a trance was the slow processions earlier in the week and on the funeral day. The repeated marches are still playing in my head—one of the three, in rotation, each day. An opera singer friend of mine said she was happy at how all this richness of music highlighted the importance of live performance, after the pandemic years.
In London (on Saturday, in glorious weather, for separate reasons), the crowds were jovial, peaceful, thronging. I ended up discussing the translation of “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” on a shield on a building with some French guys who were stuck in London for the weekend, having missed their flight—not a bad weekend to be stuck there, except of course for full hotels—only to find out they were from the town where my beloved parents lived up to the start of this year, and were on their way to a Scandinavian city I grew up in. It felt right somehow, and I was proud of this international city; if the royal family can preserve those advantages—diversity, relatively free speech, humour, etc—then I see a point. Denmark has a queen for whom expansionism and pillage were far further back in history; I still feel conflicted about the idea of the British royal family’s raison d’etre having been to ensure that very consistency and constancy, which essentially means to preserve a status quo that for a long time benefited the upper classes so disproportionately and at the expense of others, around the world. I too hope some of Charles’s better ideas can effect rapid change, and that what the royal family stands for can evolve. There was much to like about what this occasion offered and what the queen stands/stood for in people’s minds, and I was glad to be able to soak up some of the atmosphere. I hope it didn’t make you too sad or homesick.
Having just got back from the UK I wasn’t homesick, although as I say, when that hymn was sung it plunged me down rabbit holes of childhood longing and nostalgia to very different times.
You mention fascinating anecdotes here. What was it like going to the palace? Did you meet the queen? What was your father’s award for? What on earth was it like going through that experience?
The music: yes. To be honest, I am way too sensitively sponge-like when it comes to music, so I had to leave for a while as the marches were starting to drive me mad (I literally was marching up and down the stairs without even realizing it at first). The same music going round and round your head can be sheer torture – you are obviously the same. But what your friend says is true: the richness of the music being performed made you realize how much it has been missed: it really does galvanize people together.
In terms of Charles, I do think that one good thing about the royal family is that the fact they have no actual power, but do have brains and probably more actively interested in the wellbeing of UK citizens than career politicians, meaning that in the weekly addresses with people who just want to cut taxes for the rich and don’t actually give a shit about people who are almost starving, I think C, being younger and very opinionated, will probably help to steer Truss in a more compassionate direction. The queen probably also did this too, much more often than we realized, despite her supposed impartiality.
Yes, there are surprising memories being dredged up. I saw the queen that time (in the room) but only my father spoke with her. He’d actually met her before as part of his job promoting British industry in Denmark. Fond memories for me are going on visits to massive shipyards with him; I loved all that heavy industry! And I still do—something massive can completely take you out of yourself (like the queen’s funeral did, I suppose). These days you can’t get into a plant in the same way, health and safety rules…So I seek out massive things to view from the outside….
I agree with you that maybe the royal family can now be a moderating influence – at least some counterpoint – to some of these god-awful politicians.
What a beautiful and thoughtful post. I watched a lot of the coverage — very grateful for the long stretches without any commentary, just letting the rites speak for themselves. The American commentators were excruciating, so kudos to the BBC and outlets that just broadcast the events. The music was extraordinary. I too think the Queen was a remarkable individual. Just imagine being thrust into that role at the age of 25! And asking a new Prime Minister to form a government two days before dying at 96. TBH, I’m just glad she outlasted both Trump and Boris; and I’m especially glad that Trump wasn’t our President attending her funeral. Indeed, I hope she does now rest in peace.
Such a beautiful and moving post. I saw Her Majesty’s funeral services and procession on line, and was moved to tears so many times. I have adored the Queen my whole life, and was very brokenhearted when she passed away. It was a truly perfect way to send her off and everything about it had so much symbolism. I loved the wreath of flowers on the coffin and felt they were so appropriate for her; it must have smelt glorious.
When the bagpiper played at the end, I could not contain myself, it was just too much.
May she RIP.
I think it is interesting the fact that our political beliefs seem pretty similar, and yet here we are both lamenting the passing of a monarch – it must say something about her particular traits that made her stand out from the rest
She seemed to me to have been a very decent person. Someone who genuinely cared about people. She was definitely one of a kind. Someone the likes of which I doubt we will ever see again. Truly the end of an era.