Taking slow, sideways steps, the soldiers smoothly walked a full circle, scooch by scooch, a single unit gently sweeping with its precious burden in a rather tight space.
The precision rotation resembled the operation of a large ticking clock. Perfectly performed, it was a curiously satisfying theatrical moment.
In all the military formations, colorful uniforms, hymn-singing and sermons, I searched for elements like this – the artistry and drama of those rare royal funerals and processions. Where was the art in the middle of the staging? Where was it as moving as it was spectacular? What was the theme of the event and how successfully was it expressed?
After all, the queen’s rites were not an end. It was a theater of power. His aim was to show unwavering continuity. The state and crown gears still turn smoothly – as they always have and always will.
Nothing is over, said all the military parades; the old legacy of the monarchy lives on.
We are a united front, the pursed-lipped royal family said, marching behind the coffin in well-choreographed order.
Indeed, the morning procession seemed so timeless and steeped in history that you half-expected all the princes and princesses to turn out like royalty from oil paintings and fairy tales, in flowing dresses. and velvet waistcoats. But the military influence dominated – the procession was a brilliant operation, with each branch represented in colorful finery. Senior members of the Queen’s family wore their military uniforms and medals, with two painful exceptions.
Outstanding in their morning suits were the veterans who were barred from appearing in uniform: Prince Harry, who walked away from royal life to protest the treatment of his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and the scandal-stained Prince Andrew stripped of his military titles following a sex abuse lawsuit, which he settled while denying the allegations.
Well, Buckingham Palace wrote the script.
Iron discipline was everywhere in evidence. Nature kindly cooperated; London’s notoriously temperamental weather showed restraint. A sky of a neutral and peaceful taste offered no distractions. Streaks of pale blue appeared discreetly here and there, not distracting from the main attractions.
Occasionally, a light breeze lifted the corners of the many flags along the mall and ruffled lines of feathered plumes. In the bright, filtered light, the magnificent objects on the queen’s red and gold coffin were the stars – the jeweled crown and scepter, the golden orb.
All dazzled. The procession was a visual feast, adapted to our visual culture. Entertainment was far from the top order of the day here, but the Queen, who played a role in event planning, knew how much the TV cameras loved the royal pomp. In 1952, when her father, King George VI, died, interest in his funeral was so high that it sparked a wave of massive television purchases. (The procession was televised, although the funeral was not.) The TV bombshell moment came the following year when the Queen allowed TV cameras at her coronation.
Mindful of her own stardom as the most famous woman in the world, and as a final gesture towards the public duty so central to her life, the Queen designed her funeral as a long, long look at what was dear to her. It was a chance for the world to see the greatness, importance and power of the British monarchy, in glorious motion. With London itself transformed into one big stage.
It was a procession for an icon. But where was the woman? This matchless 96-year-old, legendary dynamo, mother of four, grandmother, great-grandmother, bereaved widow. The remarkable person bent over his cane in his drab, ordinary cardigan, and smiling so cheerfully with the new Prime Minister two days before his death. Where was she in the midst of greatness?
The most poetic — and personal — touch was the wreath of pink and purple flowers on her coffin, massed in a natural, graceful mound. Garden roses, dahlias, sprigs of rosemary and oak leaves got to soak and sway. King Charles III chose them, some from his mother’s marriage, others collected from his favorite homes. Amidst all the sharp edges of the army, these flowers were the only nod to a softer side of the queen.
Impressive as the events were, I came away feeling that we had lost something of the woman herself. Unless I missed it, there were few mentions in the sermons of her feelings for her children and grandchildren, or of any special and remarkable moments with an audience member who might have touched her, or of their own personal preferences. There were no startling or witty anecdotes (is it too American of me to seek a little levity?), no insight into the woman’s heart.
She wanted it that way, I guess – she was a woman who shared her private self with very little. The official stamp of the queen, so to speak, is felt in the sermons which praise her duty above all else. She was remembered for her work ethic – one for the ages.
Still, there were moments of intense emotion amid all the emphasis on discipline, lines and strict formations. The music was most moving when the whole gathering at Westminster Abbey sang, as in “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” – that warm, full, velvety swell of collective voices.
Some of the drama may have only existed in his imagination, but who hasn’t felt a sharp pain seeing Princes William and Harry so coldly apart? It was 25 years ago almost to the day that they were united in shock at the funeral of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, following her excruciatingly early death. There they walked side by side behind his coffin like grieving young brothers. Now we have seen William in his Royal Air Force uniform saluting his grandmother’s coffin and the war memorial known as the Cenotaph, while next to him his brother did not. – but surely wanted to. He was forbidden to do so (see the palace script above). This moment struck me in the heart.
The bugle call “The Last Post” towards the end of the Abbey service also touched me. All I could think of was the same fanfare played at the funeral of the Queen’s husband Prince Philip a year ago when covid precautions kept attendance drastically low and the queen sat down all alone in her mask at the end of a bench.
Yet: Continuity. Order. The theme resonated from start to finish, even if it felt a little forced at times.
Fortunately, a real healing balm was present: the children. Formal debates have never seemed more honest and tender than when the cameras caught a glimpse of the young people who took part.
There were the altar boys, all with golden voices and gentle faces. And the children of William and Catherine, Princess of Wales – Prince George, 9, and Princess Charlotte, 7, attend their great-grandmother’s services fervently in tiny funeral attire. With all the spectacle in sight, it was these children who added bittersweet emotion and surprising, genuine humanity – and continuity in the fullest sense.