Of course I went to see turn. Over the past week, the south bank of London’s River Thames has been transformed into a living art installation as mourners waited until 24 hours walk through Westminster Hall and spend time at the coffin of Elizabeth II. The old joke goes that the British can’t see a line without wanting to join it. Hundreds of thousands of us have proven it. Couples, parents and children, tourists, retired military, David Beckham. All human life was there.
The weather was good but chilly. British autumn is a bittersweet season; One day in September you leave the house, and although the sky is still clear, the air bites you. This is the perfect time of year for a funeral.
Today is the last day of official mourning in the UK for Elizabeth II, and he taught me more than I expected about my country. Early predictions that no one will take care were exposed; The route of the procession in central London was full two hours before the start of the funeral. Travelers in Britain airports stopped to watch the ceremony on TV. Crowds lined the roads, carrying the coffin to the Windsor burial site, tossing flowers in front of the hearse. Britain loves to indulge in tales of its own decline, but by God, we can put on a pageant. The most frequent text message I received from friends and family was: Wow, we’re good at this. It was not always like this: The coffin almost fell off the carriage at the funeral of Queen Victoria, and at the coronation of Edward VII, the archbishop was unable to read the proclamation because it was too dark in the abbey.
Over the past 10 days, it has become apparent that the UK keeps a large number of full dress military uniforms for just such an occasion – not only bearskin hats, but lion skins, and brocade jackets, and sport the size of a Shih Tzu. Even the bagpipe, an instrument commonly used by Americans to receive change in the heart of Scottish cities, sounded beautiful, echoing in the high vaults of Westminster Abbey. Many of Britain’s ceremonial trappings may seem like things we pretend to fit in because they pander to the tourist’s idea of an obdurate museum country. It was strange to see horns and bearskins deployed for their intended purpose.
Some elements of the period of mourning were really touching. While lying, the queen’s children, and then her grandchildren, took turns on duty around her coffin; the gesture was stronger due to the fact that he was quiet and reserved. Today at 10:05 a.m., the Queen’s ladies of court entered Westminster Abbey in a swaying sea of stiff backs and soft gray hair to pay their respects to a friend of many years. The bouquet on the coffin contained a sprig of myrtle from a plant grown from the Queen’s wedding bouquet in 1947.
Now that the 10 days of remembrance are coming to an end, we can admit that some of them were a bit North Korean. The British public broadcaster BBC has wiped out so much of its schedule that some have nicknamed it “Mournhub”. The Speaker of the House of Commons was so engrossed in the moment that he said yesterday that the funeral was “the most important event the world has ever seen.” The new religion was briefly born, inspired by the appearance of the Queen in a comedy sketch with Paddington Bear; people should have been told not to leave sandwiches with marmalade near Buckingham Palace.
Companies that tried to mix mourning with branding inevitably fell into disgrace. Companies knew that something some act of respect was expected from them, but it was hard to understand what. The online pharmacy where I recently bought ear drops felt the need to email me to express sympathy for the death of our common ruler. For a few hours resort company central parks promised to expel all his guests on the day of the funeral; after the backlash, it changed its policy and asked everyone to stay in their chalet.
estimated one fifth of the British want to replace the monarchy with a republic. These people have not received much airtime in the past 10 days as police threatened anti-imperialist demonstrators with arrest in London and in Edinburgh police dragged a man who shouted that Prince Andrei, friend of Jeffrey Epstein, was a “sick old man.” With the British media and left-wing politicians so united in respect (or at least respectful silence), New York Times was chosen to be the folk villain, though minor role for an American scientist who wished a painful death to the queen in revenge for the horrors of colonialism. For anyone passionately opposed to the monarchy, or perhaps even mourning their own loss, the atmosphere of the past 10 days must have been suffocating.
The royal family is mostly the backdrop of everyday British life, but since his accession to the throne, the new king has been everywhere. Indeed, the entire family took note of Elizabeth II’s opinion that she needed to “be seen to be believed.” At a time when the British alliance was feeling fragile, Charles III decided to visit Northern Ireland and then Wales. His mother’s coffin was already in Scotland because she died at Balmoral.
Charles’s age and temperament have only been questioned once. He took the day off in the midst of mourning after footage showed him get upset about the fountain pen for the second time in a week. (The next day one well-wisher jokingly suggested him a ballpoint pen.)
Other cracks were patched up with impressive skill. Last week, Prince William and Prince Harry showed unity with their wives as they greeted the crowd at Windsor. Several women in the crowd refused to shake Megan’s hand, perhaps because of the criticism she made in Oprah interview, but she was generally treated with respect, and the new king made special mention of her and her husband in his first address to the nation. Prince Harry has been allowed to wear his army uniform to the grandchildren’s vigil, having previously released a statement saying he would be happy to wear the suit to the rest of the events. (He relinquished his honorary military posts when he left for California.) Even Prince Andrew was allowed look at the bouquetsbut his shame was obvious. He was the only one of the Queen’s four children not dressed in uniform as they followed the coffin from the abbey to Marble Arch.
The funeral itself was surreal. So many things seemed worthy of note. The British government forced foreign leaders to come by bus like schoolchildren on the world’s most selfish school trip. (Joe Biden was released and allowed to use his bomb-proof limousine, which was then stuck in a traffic jam.) Women in hijabs sat next to guards in ostrich-feather helmets, and somewhere in the depths of the transept, a Union Jack bale flickered. Commonwealth leaders sat next to MBE recipients of charity campaigns. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, a political party associated with Irish republicanism, sat behind Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the pro-Scottish National Party. Where else can you find New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Emperor of Japan and the person who wrote Phantom of the Opera?
The succession offered by the monarchy was demonstrated when the coffin entered the abbey, followed by King Charles; William, new Prince of Wales; and William’s eldest son, George. (Of course, there will be enough kings to last until the ice caps completely melt.) On the political front, seven of Elizabeth’s 15 prime ministers are still alive — the rate of turnover has accelerated due to the Brexit-related turmoil. As all six former British leaders sat together in the abbey and engaged in animated conversation, I was again reminded of how Donald Trump had ousted himself from any such grouping in the United States by refusing to acknowledge that he had lost the 2020 election. Funerals show the cycle of life and death and remind us that there is grace and dignity to be found in leaving the stage as well as in managing it. “Those who serve will be loved and remembered, while those who cling to power and privilege will be long forgotten,” said Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, during his speech.
In his sermon, Welby also referred to the queen’s “servant leadership”. The funeral procession passed by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the symbol of sacrifice without glory. Both reminded me that my colleague David Frum wrote last week: “In the British system, power does not matter much. Prime ministers live in an apartment above their office. People are rude to them all the time,” he said. “Meanwhile, he who receives palaces, bows and scratches, detachments and guards, receives nothing more.”
Over the past 10 days, I have looked at my country and seen its flaws – the unresolved legacy of colonialism, the need for conformity, sentimentality that can turn into sugary – but also its respect for duty and self-sacrifice. The Windsors are not an exceptional family in terms of appearance, intelligence, or charisma. Some of them seem to love horses more than people. But this is the royal family, given to Britain by fate, and despite all the talk of golden hats, luxurious palaces and country estates, everyone here knows that being a royal family is a hell of a terrible job. Elizabeth II did not choose this and did it anyway. Now Charles III must do the same.