Of all the complicated choreography in the procession and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, the most eye-catching moment unfolded inside Westminster Abbey, when the problem of repositioning her heavily adorned coffin for its exit was gracefully solved.
As organ notes rang at the end of the service, the eight soldiers who’d carried in the queen’s coffin crept near to it again, so closely grouped as to seem one red-clothed body. Separating into pairs, the soldiers slowly slid and hoisted the coffin on their shoulders. Now the difficult part: to swing the casket around so it pointed toward the door — with no bobbling of its fittings, including a floral wreath, imperial crown, scepter and orb.
Taking slow, sideways steps, the soldiers smoothly pinwheeled full circle, scooch by scooch, a single unit sweeping smoothly around with its precious burden in a rather tight space.
The precision spin looked like the workings of a great, ticking clock. Flawlessly performed, it was a curiously satisfying theatrical moment.
In all the military formations, colorful uniforms, singing of hymns and sermonizing, I looked for elements such as that one — the art and drama of this rare royal state funeral and procession. Where was the artistry amid the showmanship? Where was it moving as well as spectacular? What was the event’s theme, and how successfully was it expressed?
After all, the queen’s rites were not about finality. This was a theater of power. Its purpose was to show unshakable continuity. The gears of state and crown are still smoothly wheeling around — as they have always done and always shall.
Nothing has ended, said all the military displays; the monarchy’s ancient heritage lives on.
We are a united front, said the tight-lipped royal family, walking behind the coffin in well-choreographed order.
Indeed, the morning procession felt so timeless and steeped in history you half-expected all the princes and princesses to show up looking like the royalty of oil paintings and fairy tales, in flowing gowns and velvet waistcoats. But the military influence dominated — the procession was a brilliant operation, with every branch represented in colorful finery. The senior members of the queen’s family wore their military uniforms and medals, with two painful exceptions.
Conspicuous in their morning suits were the veterans who were forbidden to appear in uniform: Prince Harry, who stepped 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 in the wake of 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; the notoriously fickle London weather showed restraint. A tastefully neutral, untroubled sky offered no distraction. Pale streaks of blue appeared unobtrusively here and there, drawing no attention away from the main attractions.
Occasionally, a slight breeze lifted 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.
Everything dazzled. The procession was a visual feast, tailored to our visual culture. Entertainment was far from the first order of business here, but the queen, who played a role in planning the events, knew how TV cameras loved royal pomp. In 1952, when her father, King George VI, died, interest in his funeral was so high it sparked a mass buying spree of television sets. (The procession was televised, though the funeral was not.) TV’s bombshell moment came the following year when the queen allowed TV cameras at her coronation.
Keenly aware of her own celebrity as the most famous woman in the world, and as a final gesture toward the public duty so central to her life, the queen designed her funeral as a good, long look at what she held dear. Here was a chance for the world to see the grandeur, importance and power of the British monarchy, in glorious motion. With London itself transformed into a grand stage.
It was a procession for an icon. Yet where was the woman? That peerless 96-year-old, legendary dynamo, mother of four, grandmother, great-grandmother, bereaved widow. The remarkable person bent over her cane in her drab, ordinary cardigan, and smiling so cheerfully with the new prime minister two days before her death. Where was she amid the grandeur?
The most poetic touch — and the most personal — was the wreath of pink and purple flowers on her coffin, massed in a natural, graceful mound. The garden roses, dahlias, sprigs of rosemary and oak leaves were allowed to dip and bob. King Charles III chose them, some from his mother’s wedding, others gathered from her favorite homes. Amid all the sharp edges of the military, these flowers were the only nod to a softer side of the queen.
As visually impressive as the events were, I came away feeling we had lost something of the woman herself. Unless I missed it, there was scant mention in the sermons of her feelings for her children and grandchildren, or of any special, standout moment with a member of the public that may have touched her, or of her own personal preferences. There were no surprising or witty anecdotes (is it too American of me to search for a bit of lightheartedness?), no insight into the heart of the woman.
She willed it so, I expect — this was a woman who shared her private self with very few. The queen’s official imprint, so to speak, was felt in the sermons that praised her duty above all else. She was remembered for her work ethic — one for the ages.
Yet there were spots of intense emotion amid all the emphasis on discipline, lines and strict formations. The music was most moving when the entire gathering in Westminster Abbey sang, as in “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” — that warm, full, velvety swell of collective voices.
Some of the drama existed, perhaps, only in one’s imagination, yet who didn’t feel a sharp pang at seeing Princes William and Harry so coolly distanced? 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 shoulder to shoulder behind her coffin as grieving young brothers. Now, we saw 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 wished to. He was barred from doing so (see palace script, above). That moment struck me in the heart.
“The Last Post” bugle call near the end of the abbey service also got to 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 in her mask all alone at the end of a pew.
Yet: Continuity. Order. The theme rang through from beginning to end, even if it felt a bit forced at times.
Happily, there was a true healing balm present: the children. The formal proceedings never felt more honest and tender than when cameras caught sight of the youngsters who took part.
There were the choir boys, all golden voices and sweet faces. And the children of William and Catherine, Princess of Wales — 9-year-old Prince George and 7-year-old Princess Charlotte, earnestly attending their great-grandmother’s services in diminutive funeral attire. With all the spectacle on view, it was these children who added bittersweet poignancy and startling, authentic humanity — and continuity in the fullest sense.