We’ve seen the images on TV for days now. Lines of the public entering Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament to pay their respects in person at the casket of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Full of all its pomp and pageantry and emotion.
But you can’t really get the feel for the event unless you’re inside and in person. As waits can be up to 20 hours, the Royal Household is allowing a limited number of journalists to go inside and observe for a half hour. No cameras, recorders, phones. Just old school pen and paper. So along with Producer Simon Owen who did the legwork, we entered the solemn space at midnight Saturday night.
The first thing that hits you is the silence. Except for some tapping of ceremonial rods and shuffling of boots along the marble floor with a changing of the traditional and historic guard around the casket. No one says a word. No one even whispers. In a half-hour, I heard one muffled cough … from an usher. And perhaps a light breeze drifting through the medieval rafters and stained-glass windows.
The next thing you notice is the astounding range of people who have turned out who have endured hours in line and often in the cold to be here. There are a lot of women, but men too. Old folks who might remember most of the queen’s 70 years. Some are on canes or crutches. Some are in wheelchairs. And some very young people who you get the feeling the parents will have to tell them ten years from now, “I brought you to see the Queen.”
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All nationalities. All races. All creeds. All sexual orientations. A testimony to the one-time broad global reach of the British empire, now shrunk to what’s called the Commonwealth … and years of immigration. Some dressed in subdued morning wear, others low-key. Others bundled up for the elements. But some were just happy to let it all hang out: not out of disrespect, but to show they knew the queen they loved wouldn’t mind. Bright-colored scarves. Running gear. Punk boots. Purple hair. The Queen loved them all.
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The crowds enter at the elevated end of the hall and then carefully walk downstairs. At that level, you can see the whole glorious well-lit space. Wood-beamed ceilings. Marble walls. The candles and what they came for: the casket. Sitting on a catafalque podium. Draped in a royal standard. Capped by a diamond-adored crown and scepter. Surrounded by various shades of traditional guards. Plus London Bobbies and well-dressed ushers: a well-oiled royal machine.
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So what do all of these mourners do when they finally get their ten or fifteen seconds in front of the casket to pay their respects? A range of things. The short, simple nod of the head is most common. The bigger bow taking up half the body is done. Among the women, there were many curtseys. Among the religious, signs of the cross. A covering of the whole face with hands. Prayers said among military veterans — some dressed in full uniforms, some simply wearing medals on their morning clothes. A turn of the body. A sharp (sometimes slow; sometimes fast) salute. A turn of the body again. And a march off.
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Of course, those are the disciplined ones. Then there are others who (still silently) let all the emotions out. I saw small kisses thrown in the direction of the Queen. I saw big waves. I could tell messages were being silently delivered. I saw people who seemed to be frozen to the ground in front of the coffin and the ushers had to gently nudge them on. And I saw people who couldn’t get enough looks at the late queen. As he was leaving one man must have turned around at least six times for final glances.
We were positioned at one end of the hall, so we could look into the faces of all those who had just viewed the casket and were full of emotion. There were a lot of tears, of course. Some folks bawling openly, some wiping tears gently from the corners of their eyes. Some simply with red eyes. Others stoic, looking ahead, contemplating what they’d seen. Many comforting, hugging, holding hands with those they came with. Mothers and children. Couples. Friends. Some with a satisfied, set expression on their face. Job done. Respects paid.
Folks get outside at the other end of the building, as we did, into the fresh night air, with the gothic history of the Houses of Parliament all around. Still, there was the feeling that something very modern had just happened. Democratic. A mass coming together. They called Princess Diana the People’s Princess. I think it’s safe to say Queen Elizabeth II was the People’s Queen. And Mama. And Granny. And whatever other moniker works best for a steadfast woman who saw a lot of people through some very unsteady times.
People simply wanting to return the favor via TV. Online. On the side of a road with processions going by. Or in the actual presence of the queen — albeit within an oak and lead casket.
Just for a few minutes.