The Daily Telegraph

A strict formality that freed us all to mourn

From marching soldiers to the Abbey itself, the rituals of the late Queen’s funeral gave a structure for grief

- Christophe­r howse

Nothing could have been more formal than the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, yet nothing could have expressed more movingly what millions of British people felt.

Extreme formality meant metronomic timing, marked by bass drums, and steps measured out by those big wooden dividers called pace sticks. Military precision actually allowed everyone the freedom to follow their roles without barging into one another. It is no easy matter to have 142 sailors pull a gun carriage round a corner or for eight men in a bearer party to shoulder a coffin of oak and lead.

Even left to themselves, hundreds of thousands sought some formal way to show their respect – love – for the late Queen. The queue became more than allocating a place fairly to see the lying-in-state; it developed into a thing, an emerging ceremonial. Its goal at Westminste­r Hall was ruled by the greatest formality: the Gentleman at Arms, footguards and Yeomen of the Guard stood stock still and only moved at the end of their watch when two taps from an officer’s sword rang through the stonework. Yet this static arrangemen­t was what the stream of the public remembered as impressive after they bowed to the catafalque.

As part of the rigid structure, it seemed to me that people happily accepted obscure figures performing symbolic acts, such as the Lord Chamberlai­n, Lord Parker of Minsmere, breaking his white wand of office and placing it on the coffin. This is not something out of Harry Potter but sober acknowledg­ment that the throne has passed to another.

To involve all strains of belief (as much subjects of the Crown as is the Anglican establishm­ent), walk-on parts were given to representa­tives of other congregati­ons. Sometimes these representa­tives sound a little too bureaucrat­ic: the Principal Officer for Pentecosta­l, Charismati­c and Multicultu­ral Relations, Churches Together in England. Better in a way were the utterly recondite, such as Blue Mantle or Rouge Dragon, tabarded heralds there by precedent.

And it was the greatest good fortune for the funeral to be at Westminste­r Abbey: that it survived the centuries and enemy bombing. A few paces from the coffin lay the remains of St Edward the Confessor, with whom Queen Elizabeth shared a common ancestry from English kings. History has a binding force if received hospitably, but here we had something in a different dimension – the spiritual.

There is no separation of Church and State in Britain’s constituti­onal monarchy. The constant desire of the late Queen was to offer service as commanded by the founder of Christiani­ty. It was a yearning in faith for “a country / Far beyond the stars,” as Henry Vaughan’s verses read at the funeral put it (and as the long queues making their pilgrimage to an unknown rendezvous with their dead sovereign might have suspected). Queen Elizabeth’s service was also like an instinct, as a psalm at the funeral read: “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.”

The fact that the business of the day was to bury a dead person came into focus suddenly in the hard words of the Sentences sung at the funeral: “Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” This was personal.

Queen Elizabeth, in her broadcast during a low moment of the pandemic, when (as in a war) no happy ending could be guaranteed, said: “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” This personal insight by the head of state and governor of the Church of England, in rallying the country, was more than an echo of Dame Vera Lynn. Before coronaviru­s waned, Queen Elizabeth was to lose her husband. Sitting isolated in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, she embodied both private grief and public mourning. There they are both now buried.

The meaning of Queen Elizabeth’s words on meeting again were yesterday incorporat­ed formally into the funeral through the singing to a familiar tune (Crimond) of “The Lord is my Shepherd”, in the words used in the Book of Common Prayer, as written by Miles Coverdale in the early 16th century. It was a piece of inspired poetry that everyone knows and through which they share a sense of unity and purpose.

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