The Queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey had the magnificence that befitted the country’s longest-reigning monarch, all the ceremonial that the tradition of this country can offer and the glory of the Abbey’s musical tradition.
There has rarely been in modern times, and will not be again in our lifetime, such an assembly of ecclesiatical dignataries, royalty, heads of state, and holders of the most ancient offices of the Queen’s household.
But then there has not been in modern times a Queen like Elizabeth II. The muffled tolling of the bell beforehand, one stroke for each year of the Queen’s life, was a sombre reminder of her sheer longevity: almost a century, of which 70 years were given to the service of the nation .
There were elements of modern Britain here, not least in the representatives of all the major religious faiths in the Abbey and the presence in the congregation of members of the public, but this was a ceremony which evoked long traditions of church and state.
At the heart of all the pomp, expressed by the sceptre, orb and crown on the coffin, was the pathos and dignity of a soul returning to its maker.
And, as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s homily sympathetically acknowledged, there is also the grief of a family that has lost a mother and grandmother.
The resonance of the liturgy and the beauty of the music, the bagpiper’s lament, Sleep Dearie Sleep, and the playing of The Last Post, were for many people almost unbearably moving — expressive of the emotions of the congregation and the larger audience outside.
For with the Queen, almost the last of the war generation, we are also paying farewell to an era.
A shared grief
The procession of the funeral to Hyde Park, with the coffin pulled by young sailors (a tradition that goes back to Victoria), was the opportunity for the huge numbers who congregated on central London to play their own part in the events of the day.
The numbers congregating on the capital — including those who queued for hours to pay their respects in Westminster Hall — have been extraordinary, and remarkable too in their patience and resilience.
That very British phenomenon, the queue, has had its finest moment. And in a culture that is fast moving and distracting, what was notable was the crowd’s quiet during the two minute’s silence, the hush during the passing of the coffin.
Those moments of stillness and reflection, shared by many of those watching the events at a distance, were testimony to a shared experience of respect and loss. For some of those watching, it was an opportunity to grieve for their own dead too.
The last 11 days of national mourning have seen a notable sense of unity and solidarity in the country, for many people who are not instinctively royalist share a respect for the Queen herself.
It has been an opportunity too for the Commonwealth to recover its sense of a shared history.
This sense of unity is something precious, a last legacy from the Queen. Of course we shall return all too quickly to the usual business of life and politics but it would be good if something of the civility that has characterised today, and the period of mourning, could last a little longer.
The funeral today is, was, our opportunity to express our gratitude for the Queen’s life of service and to pay tribute to the qualities she embodied, of stoicism, fortitude and cheerfulness in difficult times. We shall not forget her.
Requiescat in pace.