The Daily Telegraph

Ritual and ceremony give the public the language to mourn with dignity


‘Don’t smile! It’s not a happy occasion,” the mother barked at her daughter as she posed for photos outside Buckingham Palace. The daughter, aged perhaps 10 or 11, stopped smiling, but she didn’t know what to do instead. The mother took the snap, spent some time checking her make-up and then announced: “Right. I’m going to get a photo of the flags.” The daughter wheeled and danced around the open space, filled with anticipati­on.

It was Tuesday night and we were outside Buckingham Palace, awaiting the Queen’s hearse. The onlookers that night were a confused mixture of tourists, monarchist­s and restless children, equipped with a voracious army of camera phones.

It was not a festival or a film premiere and yet, perversely, it had something of that atmosphere. The crowd was straining for a good view. A man stood waiting in the middle of the road with a Labrador puppy; a British woman explained the anticipati­on to a confused Arab couple: “They’re bringing the Queen’s body here”; children capered; youthful stewards in fluorescen­t vests frolicked; a toddler bellowed at its nattering mother; an American trying to get close to the wrought-iron railings of the palace imagined aloud how she would recount this moment: “I was there when they brought the Queen in but I didn’t see anything!”

The first sign of the convoy was the pair of helicopter­s that came into view over the park. They hovered in the sky, then one split off and came towards us while the other tracked the hearse. As the hearse and its police outriders approached, the crowd started clapping and then cheering. I became confused. Whooping is not the appropriat­e greeting for a hearse. But what was? Silence, surely, but the crowd was too excited. They applauded. Phones appeared above heads. I caught a glimpse of white flowers atop the coffin; the convoy rolled through the gates; the people surged toward the railings to see it disappear. Then it was over.

This, I thought, is why we need the solemn and ancient rituals of proclamati­ons, addresses, procession­s and funerals, the modest covering of the maces when the King enters Parliament, the breaking of the Lord Chamberlai­n’s rod over the Queen’s coffin, the drumming and marching, the singing and exclamatio­ns of “God save the King!” These rituals tell us what to do and open up the way for shared experience­s. The critics moan that royal ceremony is “exclusive” or “classist”. It is the opposite. Only by participat­ing in rituals can everyone be included and play their part. That is, in the end, all we really want to do.

If you want a symbol of pluralism thriving within tradition, pay attention to all the marvellous hats on display. There’s the ceremonial headdress: those spiked golden helms dangling bright white swan feathers worn by the Gentlemen at Arms, the Horse Guards’ “Albert helmet” with its great yellow or red tassel, the blue and gold field marshal’s cap worn by the King, the Princess Royal’s navy, white and gold admiral’s hat, the peculiar range of black lace “fascinator­s” worn by the women, the marvellous bicorn of the Garter King of Arms, with its huge wobbling, white-feather crest, the impeccable navy police helmets, their silver badges shining and, of course, the great, fluffy bearskins worn by the Foot Guards, taken on and off with startling precision.

But the public’s hats, too, caught my eye as I strolled the length of the great queue: an immaculate black bowler, a straw hat with a cheerful Union Jack mounted on top, several ladies’ church hats, hijabs, black beanies, military berets, flat caps, African head wraps and baseball caps, often paired with a hiking rucksack and boots for the expedition­ist’s approach to the task. There were blue rinses, bleach blondes and blue-dyed hipsters, ladies with walking aids and ski poles, gumchewing girls and old men in tartan scarves, on and on for miles. There was no uniform, except in the collective sense of purpose: to wait patiently and then pay their respects.

The critics moan that royal ceremony is ‘exclusive’ or ‘classist’. It is the opposite. Only by participat­ing in rituals can everyone be included and play their part

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