How The Queen’s Death and Ancient Pageantry Are Reconnecting Us With Death
Hundreds of mothers and grandmothers died the same day as Elizabeth II. They are all mourned, privately. But they were not queens. The Queen’s death is a personal and family matter, and it is a constitutional, national and religious matter. As a queen who served with duty, constancy, good sense and humour, her loss is felt keenly by the nation, Commonwealth, and many beyond.
The Queen also embodied two powerful psychological archetypes: Ruler and Great Mother. Her death touches our conscious but also our subconscious. Universal archetypes are symbols that exist within the collective unconscious that affect us collectively, but also directly and personally.
Perhaps that is why this grief hangs in the air, differently, and with a great deal of unease and uncertainty. People praise the consistency and constancy of her reign; for many, she was the head of state for their entire lives. They grieve for an era gone by. They grieve for uncertainty about the future. They grieve for themselves, their own uncertainty.
The Queen was a good queen. She was also the ‘Best of British’, the public face we were proud to represent us on the world stage. She represented treasured values, the unchanging portrait hanging in the village hall, bank holidays and fetes, Christmas Day speeches and bunting. She is gone and we are not sure what will replace all she symbolised.
And so people have lined the streets in their thousands, in the ancient tradition. Enormous crowds gathered in Edinburgh and London. Thousands will visit her closed casket. Millions are expected to visit London for funeral procession. Many millions will watch on television around the world. Her photograph occupies billboards. The media discuss her life and the royal family with respect (in the main) and nuance. You cannot ignore this death, you cannot rush it out of your home or head.
The entire process is imbued with pomp and circumstance, archaic language, religious ceremony and impenetrable mystery. We watch political processes we barely understand yet they still touch us deeply. Even anti-royalists (and I am one) are moved by trumpets and gothic vaulted arches.
This death is slow. Ten days of memorial offer the rarest opportunity to come close to death. The emphasis on religious and spiritual ritual, the stately, beautiful, sheer slowness force us to confront death.
Yet many of the people who visit the queen lying in state at Edinburgh, or who line the streets, or pay their respects with flowers will have treated the passing of their own loved ones very differently. Will the significance and the sheer pageantry of the queen’s death change us?
Where once people laid out their loved ones in their homes, now they call 24 hour funeral parlours. Deceased family members can be out the house in just a few hours. We used to tend our own elderly, now they are outsourced to care homes. The institution of the NHS has revolutionised birth and death and, in so doing, it has removed the bookends of life from our communities. These days, we race through the rituals of death.
Of course many old traditions have dissolved in modernity, especially those connected with birth and death. We don’t dance around the Maypole much anymore, once an important annual symbol of fertility and life. Schools run bake-off contests with the proceeds going to food banks, rather than host Christian harvest festivals which nod to older pagan times and turning of the wheel of life. Newborn babies are not ubiquitously gifted silver coins and spoons. We do not commonly line the streets for our neighbours, nor view caskets, open or closed.
As a culture we have become death phobic, despite a global pandemic. The pronouncement of daily death statistics might persuaded you we were quite at home with talking about death. For years, you could not swerve the media and government’s grim determination to announce the death statistics. The bells tolled daily for the Covid fallen, although since then not for the excess deaths of the lockdown fallen. Our attention was placed upon the worst, not the best, of death. Government officials slavishly proclaimed death KPIs, designed to train our fears and make us comply with the rules. The old normal was dead, long live The New Normal.
Maybe it is because the politicians scrambled to promise us The New Normal - even if we didn’t want it - and because the world has experienced the psychic shock of pandemic and lockdowns, that the queen’s death more keenly signals the death of an era. There is a palpable anxiety in the processing of this grief. She was always there - so, what next? Does what she represented live on? That will be up to all of us.
John Donne wrote:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
The queen’s death reminds us that the bell tolls for us all. The dilatory pace of her memorial offers us much-needed time and space to confront buried generational deaths and loss. And then it also reminds us that life goes on.
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The contrast with the covid-restricted funerals of ordinary people is very stark. Here there is much indulgence for Q2 which is the direct opposite of the cruelties imposed on regular people who mourned their beloved mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and friends.
Yes the pomp and circumstance is touching.
But the prolonged public display is also off-putting given what we have lived through in the passings of many good people who were pushed to the sidelines with little ceremony and much institutional disdain for the dead.
When my family and friends honoured the passing of my 90-year-old mother, we gave her a fully normal funeral and burial and rejected the masking and the distancing and the other nonsense. We were the first such funeral and burial to do so in our small piece of the world since the public disgrace of covid mania. Our display was not as grand as Q2's send-off but it was deeply touching nonetheless.
But many others who buried their loved ones during the previous covid-dominated months were too-much restrained by the thought police and their blathering diktats. Many regrets, to be sure.
May Q2 Rest In Peace.
And may the ringing bells and the elaborate rituals of this public spectacle, both the good and the not-so-good, remind us of that which we were deprived under the latter years of her reign over us.
People have been reminded about death on the massive scale over the last couple of years. The mainstream media has been terrifying the public by telling them that they will die unless they get several injections of an experimental potion.
The situation with the death of the Queen is a completely different issue.