“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, even having my children—I think this tops that,” one of the last members of the public to pass by the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall told a BBC reporter, early on the morning of the Queen’s funeral. Along with tens of thousands of others over the previous days—ordinary Britons; curious visitors; celebrities, including the footballer David Beckham, who waited thirteen hours in line—this visitor had felt compelled to go and pay her respects in person. She and her husband had dashed to Central London the previous evening, before the opportunity passed forever. After a wakeful night shuffling along the pavements of Westminster, she finally reached the interior of the medieval hall. “You could hear a pin drop. It looked like a photograph,” she said. “Peaceful, regal.” She repeated the superlative: “It was the best thing I have ever done.”
The country had been readying itself for the Queen’s funeral for years—decades, even, given the former monarch’s remarkable longevity. Over the ten days prior to the funeral, which in Britain had been officially designated a period of mourning, the Queen’s death and the accession of King Charles III dominated the nation’s headlines. (On Friday, news of a mass grave discovered in the Ukrainian city of Izium briefly displaced the monarchy from the top of the news.) There were the multiple gun salutes of ninety-six rounds fired across the nation on September 9th, the day after the Queen’s death. There was the Duke of Norfolk’s announcement of the accession of King Charles from a balcony of St. James’s Palace the following day. There was the coffin’s journey from Balmoral, where the Queen died, to St. Giles Cathedral, in Edinburgh, to Buckingham Palace and on to the Palace of Westminster, where she lay in state for four days. There were the highly choreographed ceremonies, including the Vigils of the Princes, occurring both in Edinburgh and in Westminster, in which the Queen’s four children stood in solemn silence around her coffin; and there were the unscripted moments, including the new King’s unfortunate encounter with a leaky pen while inscribing the visitors’ book at Hillsborough Castle, the monarch’s official residence in Northern Ireland.
All were building to the big event: the state funeral at Westminster Abbey. It was the first of a monarch to be held in the Abbey since that of George II, in 1760, though the Abbey contains the tombs of a number of England’s kings and queens, including Edward the Confessor, in whose reign the Abbey was first built and who died in 1066, and Elizabeth I, the Queen’s Tudor namesake, who was crowned there in 1559 and laid to rest in the Lady Chapel in 1603. When the Queen’s father, George VI, died in 1952, his coffin was taken straight from the Palace of Westminster to Paddington Station, where it was carried by the royal train to Windsor for burial. Just as well that wasn’t today’s plan: early in the day, trains running from Paddington, including those that serviced Windsor and the newly opened Elizabeth line, had been cancelled, there having been “significant damage to overhead line equipment,” according to Network Rail.
The Queen, who was intimately involved with planning the sequence of events for her future appointment with the eternal, knew that for her own exit, anything less than the full cessation of metropolitan and civic life would seem inadequate. Before nine in the morning, black-clad mourners were flowing into the Abbey. They would include representatives of the charities of which she was a patron, members of the royal household, heads of state from the Commonwealth and beyond. President Emmanuel Macron, of France, whose tribute to the Queen had been among the most immediate and most eloquent from a country’s leader—“above the fluctuations and upheavals of politics, she represented a sense of eternity,” he said—took his seat. Joe Biden entered the Abbey with Jill Biden, looking awestruck: being the leader of the free world is all very well, but this was next-level pomp and circumstance. Half a dozen of the fifteen Prime Ministers who served during the Queen’s reign arrived within moments of each other: John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, as well as the recently defenestrated Boris Johnson, who stood, blocky and sullen, his hair, incredibly, almost as unkempt as ever. Lady Susan Hussey, the youngest daughter of the twelfth Earl Waldegrave and, at eighty-three, one of the Queen’s longest-serving ladies-in-waiting, who joined the royal household in 1960, entered the Abbey. She was among the handful of those in attendance who had also been present at the last royal funeral: that of the Duke of Edinburgh, in April, 2021, which was held in Windsor in accordance with COVID restrictions, the Queen seated alone and masked in the Quire of St. George’s Chapel.
On television, high-profile observers offered anecdotal morsels. “It was quite wonderful to have the occasional chat with her,” Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer, offered. Webber allowed that she had not shared his love of Victorian architecture, in particular “a building by an architect called William Burges—but we won’t go there now,” he added, as if the last thing the day needed was a row on architecture Twitter. Gyles Brandreth, the broadcaster, noted that only two days before her death, the Queen had performed the royal duty of asking Liz Truss to form a new government, and then immediately afterward watched her own horse, a two-year-old filly called Love Affairs, win the 3:05 from Goodwood: “What a way to go!” he marvelled. Angelica Lundekesi, an events coördinator at Brinsworth House, a care home for retired professionals in the entertainment industry run by the Royal Variety Charity, which the Queen had supported, was interviewed on Parliament Square. Lundekesi acknowledged that the past few days had been difficult, especially for those residents—many of whom had met the Queen several times in their careers—who were now living with dementia. “It’s been a case of giving the news to them over and over again, and going through their raw emotions with them, whether it’s crying or telling you the same story of when they met the Queen,” she said. “So, it’s been challenging, but beautiful at the same time.” What a way to go.
At ten-thirty, the King’s motorcade emerged from Clarence House, Charles’s longtime London residence, heading for the Palace of Westminster. (The revelation early last week that the staff at Clarence House had already been notified of forthcoming redundancies was one of the new Palace administration’s more consequential missteps: hardly the way to reward those who had been working around the clock in the King’s service.) The coffin was carried out on the shoulders of eight members of the First Battalion Grenadier Guards, draped in the Royal Standard and bearing the instruments of state: the imperial crown, the orb, and the sceptre. Also atop the coffin: a tribute of flowers chosen by the King, including blooms cut from the royal gardens, English oak, and sprays of myrtle that had, the Palace explained, been cut from a plant that was grown from myrtle in the Queen’s wedding bouquet. Accompanying them was a card. It read, “In loving and devoted memory. Charles R.” Sharp-eyed viewers spied a bright-green spider crawling atop the coffin. “John Donne poem in that,” the writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet remarked on Twitter.
The service in the Abbey lasted an hour, felt shorter, and offered not a moment more than was necessary. The Queen was not just the head of the nation but also the head of the Church of England: “In grief and also in profound thanksgiving we come to this House of God, to a place of prayer, to a church where remembrance and hope are sacred duties,” the Dean of Westminster said. Among those called to read from the Bible was Prime Minister Truss, whose deficiency as a public speaker will never again be broadcast so widely; having spent fewer than two weeks in office, no context could have placed her personal flimsiness in greater relief. The choral music was soaring, as were the camera angles, with the centuries-old work of master builders displayed in hitherto unimagined detail. The youngest mourners were Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the two older children of Prince William, the Prince of Wales. The law of royal primogeniture having been changed so that male descendants no longer receive precedence over their sisters, they are now second and third in line to the throne. Edward, the Earl of Wessex, the Queen’s youngest child, dabbed the corners of his eyes with the tips of his white-gloved fingers.