The Daily Telegraph
A great royal occasion that was, like the woman it honoured, radically simple
Elizabeth II saw herself as just another hopeful pilgrim knocking at the gate of Heaven, yet her traditional funeral was watched by billions around the world
Many of us sat in the Abbey for more than two hours before it started. As with most funerals, people relieved the rising tension by chatting and observing one another. (“Does President Biden mean to be standing on Winston Churchill’s floor plaque?” “I gather President Macron was cross he had to travel by bus.”) The atmosphere was almost light-hearted.
Then the members of the Royal family arrived – the Queen Consort moving with an attractive shyness as if she hoped no one would notice her; the Princess of Wales, veiled and graceful. Her children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the latter almost covered by her black hat, tried sweetly to look grown-up.
After the arrivals, suddenly there was silence. All that could be seen through the open West Door was the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend David Hoyle, waiting, absolutely still. The distant drums and the sound of pipes stole upon us, the first evidence to our senses that there was a great procession outside.
In this drama, the biggest actor had a non-speaking part – the coffin itself. As the bearer party of Grenadiers edged it up the Abbey steps, it became literally true that in the midst of life we were in death. Before the coffin, processed the pursuivants and heralds, Queen Elizabeth’s Household, the clergy with their crosses raised high; just behind it, the King. In former days, his public face was much more expressive than his mother’s careful impassivity. Now, it is acquiring the mask of command.
‘It was the coffin, not the altar, that the Royal family – and foreign royal families – sat and faced’
Behind him, followed the chief members of his family – the Princess Royal, the most senior and stoical; the Duke of Sussex, the most uneasy.
Placed just beneath the altar and above the Quire, still carrying its flowers, the orb and sceptre and the Imperial Crown, the coffin dominated the proceedings. It was the coffin, not the altar, that the Royal family – and the foreign royal families on its other side – sat and faced.
What then played out was almost
purely from the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible, with their unique mixture of beautiful cadences and astonishing directness. Some, perhaps, may have thought this old-fashioned – which it is – and too impersonal and distant from the person mourned – which it most certainly is not.
In secular life, Elizabeth II is rightly commemorated as a great Queen and as a mother and grandmother. Here, in the prayers, she was, for God, “thy daughter Elizabeth” and, for us, “our sister Elizabeth” – just another hopeful pilgrim knocking at the gate of Heaven. That is how she saw herself, and in this she knew she could claim no privilege.
The Prime Minister read well the famous passage from St John’s Gospel in which Jesus tells his doubting disciples there is room for them: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”
One can imagine how greatly those words comforted his servant, Elizabeth. She always liked to be told honestly what was not so, and what was. She always believed what Jesus told her.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke with admirable plainness. He could have filled hours singing the praises of the late Queen’s many achievements, and of course he warmly acknowledged them. But he got straight to the point: all her life, she had followed Jesus, believing his promises and therefore keeping hers. That was what he called “her servant leadership”, offered in “the certain expectation of something not seen”.
When she had said, during Covid, “We will meet again”, she was not just quoting dear old Vera Lynn. Her message was more cosmic than that.
So was this funeral. It completely fulfilled the traditional expectations of a great royal occasion – the military honours, the precision of ceremony, the order of precedence – but it was, like the woman it honoured, radically simple. It was sending a Christian soul on her journey out of this world.
The framers of this funeral, who included the new King, respected tradition, but were not hidebound by precedent. They chose Westminster Abbey for a monarch’s funeral for the first time in nearly 300 years.
They know this could not have been an almost private affair in Windsor, because they knew that this Queen, through longevity, television and the internet, and the beauty of her character, had come to belong not only to the country that loved her the best, but to the world. They will not have been unaware that they were organising what must surely have been the most watched Christian service in the whole of human history.
Twenty-five years ago, I sat in almost exactly the same place for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. That, too, was a wonderfully conducted occasion, but it had to confront the pain and anger which had never been resolved in her tragically short life.
The funeral of Elizabeth II was quite
‘They were organising the most watched Christian service in the whole of human history’
different, and went deeper. After all the words had been spoken and all the hymns and anthems sung, the Queen’s Piper played Sleep, dearie, sleep.
As the sound wrapped itself around the soaring Gothic architecture, young Prince George cast his eyes about, trying to trace where it was coming from.
Then it grew quieter and more distant, as if departing over the hills above Balmoral, and everything was at peace.