Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral: her last act of magic and mystery
The death of Her Majesty is also a 'mass contemplation event', causing deep public and personal reflection, says George Chesterton
Sunday 18 September 2022 By George Chesterton
Queen Elizabeth II was the symbol for a great many things, all of which have been pored over since the news of her death. Symbols, especially those as potent as the Queen’s, tend to defy logic or rationality. They are found everywhere where people need to belong, whether that be a nation, faith, community, football team or cultural tribe. We give them their meaning. So, the Queen’s funeral is the last of her many contributions to the psychology of the country in which she reigned for so long.
The funeral of the Queen is a moment of communion that spans the intimate and the national. Because the symbolism of the institution she embodied transcends the everyday, so her funeral is an event that takes us out of the everyday, almost out of time.
This is a moment we all share (a testament to her, of course), and shared experiences are as rare as republicans in Windsor Castle. So much has been made of her epoch-spanning 96 years – beginning with talkies and ending with TikTok – that we can focus too intently on her historical importance and underestimate her cultural weight. Having submerged her private existence in a sea of public symbolism, her death now provides a fleeting glimpse of what life is like when we look those around us in the eye and acknowledge our commonality. It is a kind of mass contemplation event.
We often don’t know our neighbours; we don’t really know our colleagues; sometimes it feels like we don’t even know our friends and family. The recognition of the Queen’s passing blurs the distinction between royal obsessives, respectful republicans and the vast majority of passive but grateful observers; those who gave the Queen little thought until they realised, with a jolt, that she really did represent something significant, a rainbow of ideas and values from which people can pick and mix: continuity, stability, faith, duty, patriotism, family, ritual.
This only worked because we understood there was a human being somewhere behind the symbols, and the affection grew even though we could never really know her. Individually we are concerned with what we need to do right now, in an hour, tomorrow, next week. We live and love from hand to mouth. The death of the Queen is a once in a lifetime moment when we are, in effect, forced to stop, unable to resist thoughts of creeping mortality. She has probably caused more awkward conversations with children about what death is than anyone else in history. Only someone who could symbolise grandparents and parents and loved ones generally could have done this.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, the public reaction was crazed. I doubt most of those who were caught up in that hysteria could articulate why they acted that way. With the Queen people know exactly why they feel the way they do: it is the symbolism of inevitability and time passing. We are confronted with the great arc of life. Even this act is a manifestation of her life’s work. Our reactions mirror her actions: quiet, stoic, thoughtful. Whether we like it or not (whether we like her or the monarchy), we remain bound to the symbolism she propagated for seven decades.
Of course, she was also literally a ‘queen’, a word swollen with associations from a collective imagination bequeathed by history, literature, and myth. Being a queen must mean something, and because we knew so little of her, she could mean anything to anybody. With that nebulous nature also came – through no fault of her own – the capacity to symbolise less celebratory ideas, such as the legacy of colonialism, to increasingly rare dissenting voices.
The narrative since the Queen’s death is that Britain will never be the same again, and that dramatic social and constitutional change is unavoidable. But that may well turn out to be the confection of excited minds. It is more likely that the Queen has done more than anyone to ensure the glacial evolution and adaptability of British society remains glacial. Some things will change, the Commonwealth for example, but the presupposition that we are heading towards a British Ragnarök is false. Charles and William have learned at her feet, so the next two monarchs are already banked.
It’s a measure of how oddly subliminal the idea of monarchy is in Britain that it could have rolled on for so many centuries with such a mix of unpopular or ineffectual kings and queens. Imagine then, what an anomaly the Queen was and how much more she has osmosed into our minds. She was not only a queen, something imbued with mystery and even holiness, but she was a loved queen. That is some powerful magic.
There are many reasons to be thankful for the Queen’s life. Her final gift was simply the time to pause and reflect together, and in that moment, which will inevitably pass, remind ourselves we are not alone.