What the Queen’s Funeral Taught Me About Britain

Mourning Elizabeth II showed her kingdom at its best.

Queen Elizabeth's coffin in a procession
Daniel Leal / Getty

Of course I went to see the queue. For the past week, the south bank of London’s River Thames has been transformed into a living art installation, as mourners have waited for up to 24 hours to file through Westminster Hall and spend a moment with the coffin of Elizabeth II. An old joke holds that British people can’t see a line without wanting to join it. Hundreds of thousands of us proved this true. Married couples, parents and children, tourists, retired soldiers, David Beckham. All human life was there.

The weather was fine but crisp. The British autumn is a bittersweet season; one day in September, you leave the house and, even as the sky is still clear, the air bites you. It’s the perfect time of year for a funeral.

Today marks the last day of Britain’s official mourning period for Elizabeth II, and it has taught me more than I expected about my country. Early predictions that no one would care have been debunked; the procession route in central London was full two hours before the funeral started. Travelers at British airports stopped to watch the ceremony on television. Crowds lined the roads taking the coffin to its burial place, in Windsor, throwing flowers in front of the hearse. Britain likes to luxuriate in a narrative of its own decline, but by God, we can organize a pageant. The most frequent text message I received from friends and family was: Wow, we’re good at this. That wasn’t always the case: The coffin nearly fell off the gun carriage at Queen Victoria’s funeral, and at Edward VII’s coronation, the archbishop couldn’t read the proclamation, because the abbey was too dark.

In the past 10 days, it became apparent that Britain has been keeping an abundance of ceremonial military uniforms for just such an occasion—not only bearskin hats, but lion pelts, and brocade jackets, and sporrans the size of a shih-tzu. Even the bagpipes, an instrument normally used to obtain small change from Americans in Scottish city centers, sounded beautiful echoing around the high vaults of Westminster Abbey. So much of Britain’s ceremonial paraphernalia can feel like stuff we pretend to need because it panders to tourists’ idea of a hidebound museum-country. It was strange to see the bugles and bearskins deployed for their intended purpose.

Some elements of the mourning period have been genuinely moving. During the lying in state, the Queen’s children and then her grandchildren took their turns standing vigil around her coffin; the gesture was more powerful for being silent and understated. At 10:05 this morning, the ladies of the Queen’s household entered Westminster Abbey, in a bobbing sea of stiff backs and soft white hair, to pay tribute to a friend of many decades. The bouquet on top of the coffin carried a sprig of myrtle from a plant grown from the Queen’s wedding bouquet in 1947.

Now that the 10 days of remembrance are ending, we can admit that some of it was a bit, well, North Korean. The British state broadcaster, the BBC, wiped out so much of its schedule that some nicknamed it “Mournhub.” The speaker of the House of Commons got so carried away by the moment that yesterday he claimed the funeral was “the most important event the world will ever see.” A new religion was briefly born, inspired by the Queen’s appearance in a comedy sketch with Paddington Bear; people had to be told not to leave marmalade sandwiches outside Buckingham Palace.

Businesses that tried to mix mourning with branding, inevitably, embarrassed themselves. Companies knew that something was expected of them, some act of reverence, but struggled to understand what. An online pharmacy from which I recently purchased ear drops felt the need to email me to commiserate on the death of our shared sovereign. For a few hours, the vacation-resort company Center Parcs pledged to kick out all its guests on the day of the funeral; after a backlash, it changed its policy to ask everyone to remain in their chalets.

An estimated one-fifth of Britons want to replace the monarchy with a republic. Those people didn’t get much airtime during the past 10 days, as police threatened anti-imperialist protesters with arrest in London, and in Edinburgh, officers dragged away a man who shouted that Prince Andrew, a friend of Jeffrey Epstein, was a “sick old man.” With the British media and left-wing politicians so united in respect (or at least respectful silence), The New York Times was cast as the role of folk villain, although there was a walk-on role for an American academic who wished a painful death on the Queen in retribution for the horrors of colonialism. For anyone passionately opposed to the monarchy—or perhaps even mourning their own loss—the atmosphere of the past 10 days must have been suffocating.

The Royal Family is mostly a backdrop in daily British life, but since his accession, the new King has been everywhere. Indeed, the entire family has taken note of Elizabeth II’s sentiment that she had to “be seen to be believed.” At a time when the British union feels fragile, Charles III made a point of visiting Northern Ireland, then Wales. His mother’s coffin had already lain in state in Scotland, because she died at Balmoral.

Charles’s age and temperament came into question only once. He took one day off in the middle of the mourning period, after footage showed him getting frustrated about a fountain pen for the second time that week. (The next day, one well-wisher jokingly offered him a ballpoint.)

Other cracks were papered over with impressive skill. Last week, Prince William and Prince Harry put on a display of unity with their wives, greeting crowds in Windsor. A few women in the crowd refused to shake Meghan’s hand, possibly because of the criticisms she made in her Oprah interview, but generally she has been treated with respect, and the new King specifically referred to her and her husband in his first address to the nation. Prince Harry was allowed to wear his army uniform for the vigil of the grandchildren, having earlier put out a statement saying that he was happy to wear a suit for the rest of the events. (He gave up his honorary military roles when he left for California.) Even Prince Andrew was allowed out to look at bouquets, but his disgrace was obvious. He was the only one of the Queen’s four children not in uniform as they walked behind the coffin from the abbey to Marble Arch.

The funeral itself was surreal. So many things seemed noteworthy. The British government made the foreign leaders arrive on a bus, like students on the world’s most ego-laden school trip. (Joe Biden was excused, and allowed to use his bomb-proof limo, which then got stuck in traffic.) Women in hijabs sat next to guards in helmets with ostrich plumes, and somewhere deep in the transept, I got a glimpse of a Union Jack kippah. Commonwealth leaders sat next to charity campaigners rewarded with an OBE—the Order of the British Empire. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, the political party associated with Irish republicanism, sat behind Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party, which argues for Scottish independence. Where else would you find New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the emperor of Japan, and the man who wrote Phantom of the Opera?

The continuity offered by the monarchy was on display as the coffin entered the abbey, followed by King Charles; William, the new Prince of Wales; and William’s eldest son, George. (That’s enough kings to keep us going until the ice caps are fully melted, surely.) As for politics, seven of Elizabeth’s 15 prime ministers are still alive—the turnover rate was accelerated by the tumult of Brexit. As all six of Britain’s former leaders sat together in the abbey, making lively conversation, I was reminded again how Donald Trump has exiled himself from any similar grouping in the United States by refusing to accept that he lost the 2020 election. Funerals show the cycle of life and death, and remind us that there is grace and dignity to be found in leaving the stage as well as in commanding it. “Those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privilege are long forgotten,” said Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, during his address.

In his sermon, Welby also referred to the Queen’s “servant leadership.” The funeral procession went past the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a symbol of sacrifice without glory. Both reminded me of what my colleague David Frum wrote last week: “Power has little majesty in the British system. Prime ministers reside in an apartment over their office. People are rude to them all the time,” he noted. “Meanwhile, the person who gets the palaces, the bowing and scraping, the bands and the guards, gets nothing else.”

In the past 10 days, I have looked at my country and seen its faults—the unaddressed legacy of colonialism, a need for conformity, a sentimentality that can tip into mawkishness—but also its respect for duty and sacrifice. The Windsors are not an exceptional family, in looks or brains or charisma. Several of them seem to like horses more than people. But they are the royal family that fate has given Britain, and for all the talk of gold hats and lavish palaces and country estates, everyone here knows that being royal is a bloody awful job. Elizabeth II didn’t choose it, and she did it anyway. Now Charles III must do the same.