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A fitting final farewell

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The slow descent of the lead-lined oak coffin, draped in the Royal Standard, to the Royal Vault in St George’s Chapel, in Windsor, brought a tear to many an eye and gave a feeling of emptiness to the millions who adored Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly before, the Imperial State Crown, as well as the Orb and the Sceptre, The Instruments of State, which she received at the Coronation, in 1953, that rested on the coffin, were removed by the Crown Jeweller and placed at the high alter by the Dean of the Chapel, following which the Lord Chamberlain “broke” his wand of office and placed it on the coffin, signalling the end of his service to the sovereign as her most senior official in the Royal Household. A lament played by the Sovereign’s piper floated in the air, masking the sighs of the personal congregation of 800 assembled to witness the end of the Elizabethan Era; one of the greatest in British history.

A few hours later, at 7.30, the same evening, at a private family service, the Queen was buried, together with her late husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, at the King George VI Memorial Chapel, located inside St George’s Chapel. British Royals are actually not buried but their coffins are placed in the Royal Vault, or in a Chapel. Queen Elizabeth financed the construction of the Chapel that bears her father’s name, which is small due to constraints of the architecture of St George’s Chapel. The coffin of King George VI, which was in the Royal Vault, was moved to this Chapel, on its completion in 1969. When the Queen Mother died, in 2002, her coffin was placed next to the King’s and shortly after that the ashes of Princess Margaret, who died seven weeks before her mother, that were in the Royal Vault was moved to be with her parents. As previously planned, the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh was kept in the Royal Vault till the death of the Queen. Some say that Princess Margaret was cremated as King George VI Memorial Chapel can accommodate only four coffins but others say that it was her wish.

September 19th is a momentous day in British history as it is the day that the nation bid the final farewell to a much-loved quee, with a ceremony marked by splendour and pageantry. The Queen’s Lying-in-State, which started on the evening of 14th September, ended at 8.32 am, when the last of thousands and thousands who queued, sometime up to 24 hours, walked past the catafalque, on which her coffin lay. At 10.44 am, her coffin was lifted and bought out by the ‘bearer party’ of eight soldiers and placed on the State Gun Carriage, drawn by 142 Navy ratings. With their white-capped heads in rhythmic motion, the 90 ratings, in front, pulled, and when the procession reached Westminster Abbey, for the service at 11 am, those sailors behind had to pull backwards, to act as the braking party.By the way, the hallmark of a State Funeral, the State Gun Carriage drawn by naval ratings, is the result of an unfortunate incident that happened during Queen Victoria’s funeral, in the extreme cold of February, 1901. It is reported, in the website of ‘Memorials and Monuments in Portsmouth’, where the State Gun Carriage is kept, as follows:

“The timing for the funeral procession in London went awry and when the coffin and cortege finally arrived at Windsor the troops had been in position without moving, for more than 90 minutes. When the order to move off was given the gunners had trouble with their horses and some started to rear. It looked as if the coffin would fall from the gun-carriage. Immediately behind were King Edward VII, the Kaiser, the King of Greece and Prince Louis Battenburg. The panic among the horses spread to the leaders and the situation became very serious. Prince Louis whispered something to the King who nodded and Lt. Noble was ordered to stand by to pull the gun carriage with the seamen guard. Noble passed the message to Lt Boyle. The horses were led off and the sailors grounded arms and formed fours at the head of the cortege. Improvised drag ropes were brought in and so the great Queen went to her rest.”

Westminster Abbey, hosting the funeral service, deviating from tradition, is the historic church where Britain’s kings and queens are crowned, including the Queen’s own Coronation, in 1953. It was also where, in 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip. There has not been a monarch’s funeral service, in the Abbey, since the 18th Century, although the funeral of the Queen Mother was held in 2002.

The doors of the Abbey opened at 8 am for the 2000 invited guests to arrive. Among them were 500 foreign dignitaries, including 100 heads of state. If all the heads of state arrived separately, it would have taken more than four hours, in addition to being a security nightmare. Therefore, a decision had been made to bring them by buses in groups, some agreeing, reluctantly. However, one exception was made; for President Biden. As George Orwell stated in Animal Farm “Some are more equal than others”! Unfortunately for him, his armoured limousine ‘Beast’ and the large motorcade got stuck in London traffic making President Biden a late arrival and having to contend with a seat not in the front of the Heads of State section!

After the service in Westminster Abbey, when the coffin was brought out, golden sunshine illuminated the surroundings, though it was cloudy till then. Nearly two-mile route, from the Abbey to Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, was teeming with people. Fortunately for them there was no rain and no scorching sun either. King Charles, Princess Anne and other male senior royals walked behind the coffin. The procession, which was about a mile long, was led by Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was made up of seven groups, each with its own band. Members of the armed services from the UK and the Commonwealth, the police and representatives from the NHS followed. As the coffin and the Royal mourners following them passed, in some place the crowd burst into applause; many observed silences whilst some shed tears.

At Wellington Arch, the coffin was transferred to the Royal Hearse, made by Jaguar, with input from the Queen, for the start of the 30 miles journey to Windsor. Throughout the route, crowds gathered and were throwing flowers in spite of requests not to do so. The approach to Windsor Castle, the long walk, was again teaming with people, some having camped overnight. Inside the gates, the approach road to the castle was lined on either side with flowers laid at various sites previously, giving the appearance of massive flowerbeds.

In London and Windsor and along the route, in all, around a million mourners had lined to pay respects to Her Majesty and around 28 million has watched on Television. In fact, The Daily Telegraph reported that in the UK the National Grid noted a two gigawatt drop in power, equal to switching off 200 million light bulbs, as people across the country paused to concentrate on their TV screens. Global audience, it is estimated, was four billion. According to The Sun it was the most watched television event in the world ever.

Among the other papers, The Daily Mail described the state funeral as the “greatest valediction in British if not world history”. It was a massive undertaking to honour the “People’s Queen” which was executed to perfection. As The Times stated it was “a day of history marked with tears” which was “flawless” and the “perfect farewell”.

The deeply religious Queen Elizabeth, it is said, believed in the afterlife and was confident that she would meet again her parents, sister and husband. Whether it happens or not, at least they rest together in the same Chapel.

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