They came in buses to pay their respects. Presidents, prime ministers, soldiers and royalty shuffled into Westminster Abbey in central London to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Her coffin was carried through the Great West Door to the sounds of the “Burial Sentences” and the tolling of the abbey’s bell.
The Dean of Westminster called on the congregation to “commend Queen Elizabeth to the care and keeping of almighty God”. This explicitly Christian finale to the Queen’s 70-year reign was informed by the rites and passages of other royal funerals.
The Speaker of the House Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has said the pageantry and ritual would constitute the “most important event the world will ever see”. That seems unlikely. But for many the events of recent days have been deeply felt.
The Queen’s coffin lay in Westminster Hall for four days. Hundreds of thousands filed past to pay their respects, many pausing to angle their heads, perform the sign of the cross, offer a namaste or salute. Some came with a symbol of their connection to the Queen, whether it was a clerical collar, military medals or a girl-guide neckerchief. One heard the cry of babies, occasional weeping and the clank of walking sticks. Many people would turn to look at the coffin one last time before they left the hall. Few among them walked out into New Palace Yard with their eyes dry.
These pilgrims had trudged for nearly five miles. At its longest, the queue was ten miles long with a waiting time of 24 hours. Every minute or so the queue would move forward, the motion rippling down the line. Firemen handed out bottles of water. An officious marshal chastised those taking photographs on the stairs near Westminster Bridge.
Queuing intensified people’s emotion. Strangers became friends and there was a sense of camaraderie. The experience made people more helpful, and more willing to ask for help. “It was as good as a queue could be,” said Stuart, an accountant. “It was a relaxed, peaceful way of coming here,” one vicar from Wakefield told me. “To get off the train and go straight in wouldn’t have felt the same.”
“We stood for six and a half hours for one day in our lives. The royal family do this all the time,” said a woman called Penny.
Near parliament, a statue of the Queen’s grandfather George V watched over the queue. Will Elizabeth now become a statue? There are plans for her to replace the sculpture of whipped cream and cherry currently on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. But some argue this position wouldn’t be sufficiently grand. Or what about an epithet? Elizabeth the Great, as Boris Johnson has recommended? The Good? British Pathé proclaimed her father “George the Good” in 1952 but no one remembers George VI as such today.
However her life is memorialised, the Queen has become a conduit for the personal grief many feel about their own relatives who have recently passed. Beside Westminster Hall, one man I tried to speak to simply held up his hand and said, “I think I’d rather just let it sink in.” A woman mentioned the recent death of her mother, and another said the Queen was the enduring link with her own childhood.
Outside Westminster Abbey, 4,000 military personnel formed a procession of more than a mile long to honour their commander-in-chief as the service came to a close. A group of NHS workers, elevated to a kind of royalty during the Covid-19 pandemic, joined the procession near the rear. The crowds gathered to watch. The last time that Britain buried a monarch, in 1952, hawkers sold small pieces of mirror to help those at the back see. They held up these squares of glass in the same way people raised their smartphones today. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in his sermon, Jesus does not tell his disciples how to follow but who to follow, and for many, that was the Queen.