Members of the public walk past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, in London on early September 17, 2022, where it lies in state on a catafalque (Image: AFP)
The national mourning in the UK has brought out the best in everyone — suddenly differences have been buried, and the nation is united in grief. But everything has a pall of unreality to it. Even though she was 96, and we should have known this could happen anytime — we are still unprepared. The nation is struggling to move forward while attention shifts inexorably to the funeral this coming week. Only after that will the world start functioning again. Since the last time a funeral of this grand nature took place was much before the age of television, many are not aware of the intricacies of it.
To make it real, Londoners — and others from all over the country are heading for Westminster Hall. Londoners, especially, have reserves of infinite patience as they stand in queues. This time, it is in a sombre cause. The queues outside Westminster Hall at the south east corner of the Palace of Westminster are literally miles long. They snake around the river from Westminster Bridge all the way beyond London Bridge. Given the occasion, people are sad but very patient. They have come to pay their final respects to a most beloved monarch. We had just celebrated her Platinum Jubilee a month or so ago, and in sharp contrast to this, London was then on just a happy holiday.
But after her death, which involved saying goodbye to one monarch and greeting another, the well oiled, tried and tested machinery has got into faultless action. The "Queen is Dead; Long Live the King" is pronounced with such panache that you may think they had just rehearsed it last night. The difference is, it is all being televised fully for the first time. The Queen, who has just gone, pioneered TV appearances of the royalty in the mid-seventies of the last century. She was a real professional. She went on to deploy "zoom" to connect during the pandemic and kept in touch with the world. Now her departure is being shown on the TV minute by minute. So in that sense her funeral is being attended by many other people than ever before, some only through television.
Westminster Hall where her coffin is lying in state is the oldest structure in the parliamentary complex. It was standing in its current spot before William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. It has a classic hammer beam roof and has enough room to sit members of both Houses of Parliament — all 1,500 of them. It has seen some historic events such as the trial of Warren Hastings (acquitted) as well as Thomas Moor who was sanctified later. It was the place where Churchill lay in state after his death and so did most of the royalty. The very high ceiling is exceeded only by the Big Ben.
Literally a million may pass by as they say their own brief farewell to their Queen. It is such a rare event (as no other previous royal or statesman has received this much affection) that professors of psychology have mounted a special study of queuing behaviour. Perhaps, never again in the history of mankind will so many gather to bid farewell to just one person. At least not in the UK.
Yet soon the body will move across the road to the Westminster Abbey. London then will come into its special powerful role. Around 500 heads of state — monarchs from Asia and Europe, heads of state with their spouses plus other worthies — will descend on London for the funeral. (Many of them will return for the coronation of King Charles III but that is later). Given London traffic even on normal working days, the authorities have decided that they will all ride in a bus to their destination. No presidential car for Joe Biden or a horse carriage for the emperor of Japan — they, including the President of India, will have to get on the bus (even though it is a special one, and not the red double-decker that we all ride) from their hotels or houses and come to the Abbey. Luckily the Abbey, also another vast old structure, will be able to contain them all.
Attention has already turned to how the new monarch is getting on. King Charles III was never known for patience or a calm demeanour. People knew that, but while the media was quick to critique, many took their cue from the Queen who did not comment publicly on anything her children did or did not do. The erstwhile Prince of Wales has had his share of criticism in the past and he is unlikely to escape the scrutiny now either, as he is being watched live on TV. His tantrum when his pen was leaking is now doing the rounds globally — and will be a good lesson of how not to behave in public. Not a very smooth opening, but Londoners would be sorely disappointed if he suddenly behaved impeccably. So, probably, we will all learn to adjust to his eccentricities.
Meanwhile, it is "farewell, beloved Queen."