Elizabeth II, Charles III and what it means when an era ends
What more is there to say about the queen that hasn’t been said in the past 10 days?
Every aspect of her life and 70-year reign has been rehashed. Englishmen on the street went on television and declared that it felt as if their own grandmum had died. Scottish football fans heard the news at a match and started euphorically chanting, “Lizzie’s in a Box.” Harry and Meghan showed up from California and caused a ruckus when they appeared jointly in public with William and Kate — for the first time since the couple’s resignation from royal duties — to greet mourners outside of Windsor Castle. Did this mean they were burying the hatchet?
Online, hundreds of smug Americans remarked that we held a revolution just to be rid of this nonsense — as if they were the first to think of the observation, as if that were even the point.
Nonsense is in the eye of the beholder, after all, as is genuine pathos. The funeral itself was almost impersonal, honoring the institution more than the woman. The odd thing that made me emotional was the precise way the queen’s pallbearers carried her coffin: one arm steadying the weight of the thing, and one arm wrapped around the shoulder of the pallbearer on the other side of it. The earnest effort and secret practice that would have gone into perfecting that formation. The fact that death is about the ones who are left behind to bear its weight. The way that even when carrying our heaviest loads, we can make them lighter by holding each other up.
Six hours! The funeral components lasted six hours: a procession to Westminster Abbey for the service, and then past Buckingham Palace, and then on to Windsor Castle and St. George’s Chapel where she would be finally laid to rest. Crowds waited at every turn; the miles-long “Queue” to see her casket had already become instantly legendary and included such Brits as David Beckham and Tilda Swinton.
Watching enough hours of funeral coverage eventually devolved into a numb exercise in how many hours news anchors can manage to fill on live air, using a mixture of platitudes and inane trivia.
The queen preferred nude-colored pumps, we learned. She spent World War II at Windsor Castle and was devastated when it caught fire in 1992. She hated “discourtesy” and “impoliteness” and never kept anyone waiting. She had the ability to connect with people from all walks of life, from around the world. The corgis would go to Prince Andrew.
“This is a somber day,” someone on one cable network said, before the station broke to a commercial for psoriasis treatment.
A television commentator imagined the scene from the perspective of Prince George — Prince William’s eldest son, eventual heir to the throne. “The next time he’ll see something like this will be at his grandfather’s funeral,” the commentator said.
But in truth that’s not right, either. King Charles III ascends to the throne at the age of 73. His reign will never be so long and never mean so much. Eighty-six percent of Britons have only ever known Elizabeth as their monarch. Imagine her lifetime. The country she was born into was one in which women did not fully have the right to vote. The country she leaves is one in which sovereignty is seen as a woman’s job.
Her existence held together the Commonwealth, a conglomeration of 56 nations, and upon her death some of those countries were reportedly prompted to question whether they wanted any ties to the monarchy at all. Maybe it was time to move on.
At two points during Elizabeth’s funeral — at the end of the service at Westminster Abbey and at the end of the burial at St. George’s Chapel — all of the congregants, in their dark suits and dark dresses, rose from their pews and sang “God Save the King.”
All of the congregants but one, that is: Charles did not join in because he now was the king; for the first time in 70 years the wording was not “God Save the Queen.”
The man looked emotional. He swallowed hard, his eyes were red. It was the funeral of his mother, and in that moment he looked exactly like a man who has lost his only mother. He was holding back tears.
It was not the funeral of your mother, though, and perhaps you have spent the past 10 days wondering why so much of the world had lost their minds over the entirely expected death of a 96-year-old woman who lived a long life of unimaginable privilege, the public face of an empire that historically had caused unimaginable pain.
I have a humble offering. A way to think about all of this if you, like I, have mixed feelings about the monarchy. If you, like I, wondered exactly what you were doing in front of your television at 5 o’clock in the morning.
The offering is this: If you’re able, try to take this period of the queen’s mourning as permission to mourn the things in your own life that were never given this state-sanctioned, universally acknowledged display of grief. Your own lost loved ones, failed marriages, estranged children. The quiet covid funerals of the past nearly three years, the Zoom memorials, the grandfathers who died alone in old folks’ homes a thousand miles away. The day of the queen’s funeral would have been my own grandmother’s 100th birthday, and I spent the morning thinking of her. The cello she played at church, the wrapping paper she reused at holidays, the back issues of Reader’s Digest that she kept on the bookshelf. If you ever loved a grandmother, the queen’s funeral could be that catharsis.
And maybe, if you’re able, you try to think of this as the end of an era. It’s an overworked term, “end of an era,” a cheap shorthand that I’m loath to use now, but if ever there was an appropriate use of the phrase, this right here is it.
When an era ends, you feel something. Sometimes you cry with grief, or sometimes with relief, or sometimes just with the heavy weight of knowledge that time marches on for all of us. We all age, we all slow, we all watch our bodies betray us eventually, stooped or weakened and preparing to leave this earth. Superpowers are dismantled, flags are replaced, money is reissued, allegiances are reconsidered, monarchies fade, dust to dust and ashes to ashes. The world changes and whoever you were at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign is not who you are now.
Time moves only in one direction and the funeral of the queen was about an era that is gone and is never, ever coming back. And when Charles heard “God Save the King,” he would have known that, too.