The artful messaging of the queen’s funeral: The monarchy endures
Taking slow, side-by-side steps, the soldiers moved smoothly around the circle, scoot by scoot, a single unit sweeping the rather narrow space with its precious load.
The precision rotation sounded like a great, ticking clock. Impeccably performed, it was a thrillingly satisfying theatrical moment.
In all the military accoutrements, colorful uniforms, hymn singing and sermon delivery, I looked for elements that were the art and drama of funerals and processions of this rare royal state. Where was the artistry amidst the showmanship? Where was the movement as well as spectacular? What was the theme of the event, and how successfully was it expressed?
After all, the queen’s rites were not about finality. It was a theater of power. It was meant to show unwavering continuity. The gears of state and crown still turn smoothly – as they always have and always will.
Nothing ended, all the military exhibits said. The ancient heritage of the monarchy lives on.
We are a united front, said the stiff-lipped royals, walking behind the casket in a well-choreographed sequence.
In fact, the morning procession felt so timeless and faded in history that you half expected all the princes and princesses to look like royalty from oil paintings and fairy tales, in flowing gowns and velvet waistcoats. But the military influence predominated — the procession was a magnificent operation, every branch of which was displayed in colorful beauty. Senior members of the Queen’s family wore their military uniforms and medals, with two poignant exceptions.
Prominent in their morning suits were ex-servicemen who were forbidden to be in uniform: Prince Harrywho stepped back from royal life in protest at the treatment of his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Scandal-tainted Prince AndrewHe was stripped of his military honors due to a sexual assault case, which he settled by denying the allegations.
Well, Buckingham Palace wrote the script.
Iron discipline was everywhere in evidence. Nature kindly cooperated. London’s infamous weather showed restraint. A tasteful neutral, restless sky offered no distractions. Light streaks of blue appeared uninterrupted here and there, not distracting from the main attractions.
Occasionally, a light breeze would lift the corners of many of the flags along the property and the feather plumes would be ruffled. In the bright, filtered light, the brilliant objects on the queen’s red and gold casket were the stars—the jeweled crown and scepter, the golden orb.
Everything was shattered. The procession was a visual feast, befitting 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 the TV cameras loved the royal pomp. In 1952, when her father, King George VI, died, Interest in his funeral was so high that it gave rise to large-scale buying and selling of television sets. (The procession was televised, although the funeral was not.) The explosive TV moment came the following year when the Queen allowed TV cameras at her coronation.
Deeply aware of her celebrity as the world’s most famous woman, and as a final nod to the public duty that was central to her life, the Queen made her funeral a good, long look. but designed which she cherished. Here the world got an opportunity to see the grandeur, importance and power of the British monarchy in magnificent motion. With London transformed into a grand stage.
It was a procession for an icon. Yet where was that woman? She is the incomparable 96-year-old, legendary dynamo, mother of four, grandmother, great-grandmother, bereaved widow. Notable person leaning on his cane, common cardigan, and Smiling very happily with the new Prime Minister. Two days before his death. Where was she in the midst of glory?
The most poetic touch – and the most personal – was a wreath of pink and purple flowers on her casket, nestled in a natural, beautiful mound. 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 marriage, others gathered from his favorite houses. Amidst all the sharp edges of the army, these flowers only nodded to the queen’s softer side.
As visually impressive as the events were, I felt we had lost something of the woman herself. Until I remembered it, the sermons had little mention of his feelings for his children and grandchildren, or of a particular, stand-out moment with a member of the public that touched him, or that he of their own personal preferences. There were no surprising or interesting stories (is it too American for me to look for a little levity?), no insight into the woman’s heart.
She bequeathed it, I expect—this was a woman who shared her personal self with very few people. The queen’s official image, so to speak, was felt in the sermons in which the praise of her duty was above all else. He was remembered for his work ethic – for an age.
Yet amid all the emphasis on discipline, lines and strict formations there were spots of intense emotion. The music was most moving when the whole congregation in Westminster Abbey sang, as “The day thou hast given, Lord, is done”—that warm, rich, velvety wave of congregational voices.
Some of the drama was there, perhaps, only in one’s imagination, yet who hasn’t felt a pang watching Prince William and Harry from such a cold distance? It was almost 25 years ago when they were united in shock at the funeral of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. Early death. There, they walked shoulder to shoulder behind his casket 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 his brother didn’t – but of course he did. I wanted to. He was prevented from doing so (see Palace script above). That moment hit my heart.
I also got “The Last Post” bugle call near the end of the Abbey service. All I could think of was the fanfare played. The Queen’s husband’s funeralPrince Philip, a year ago, when Covid precautions kept attendance sparse and the Queen sat alone in her mask at the end of a pew.
Still: Continuity. Order. The theme continued from beginning to end, even if it felt a bit forced at times.
Happily, there was a real healing balm: children. The ceremony never felt more honest and tender than when the cameras looked at the young people taking part.
There were the singing boys, all golden voices and cute faces. And the children of William and Catherine, Princess of Wales — Prince George, 9, and Princess Charlotte, 7 — dutifully attended their great-grandmother’s service in modest funeral attire. Over all the spectacle, it was the children who added bittersweetness and shocking, authentic humanity — and continuity in the fullest sense.