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Queen Elizabeth II funeral: hope, continuity and change

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Picture: REUTERS/Hannah McKay/Pool The coffin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is carried into Westminster Abbey on the day of her state funeral and burial, in London, Britain, September 19, 2022.

By Chris Chivers

The bagpipe is surely one of the strangest of musical inventions. But the sound of so many pipers beneath the grey skies of Parliament Square in London made for an unbelievably affecting start to the state funeral of Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The drumbeats and mournful strains somehow captured the solemnity of an occasion the like of which the United Kingdom (UK) has not known in several generations.

Over the past days, viewers had become used to the sight of the Queen’s coffin draped in the Royal Standard surmounted by Crown, Orb and Sceptre – the signs of the kingly rule to which the Queen was anointed at her Coronation in 1953. But, completely unexpected was the rosemary next to these for remembrance, myrtle for the love of her long marriage to Prince Philip and to her people, and oak for the stability her rule offered, together with flowers not white as hitherto but the Queen’s favourites, beautiful pinks and reds. It was almost as if mourners were being reminded of the dazzling outfits the Queen had always worn.

“One must be seen to be believed,” she used to say.

As the scarlet-dressed Grenadier Guards bore her coffin towards the Abbey door, many perhaps suddenly realised for the first time that she would never be seen again.

‘I am the resurrection and life, saith the Lord’, the peerless Abbey Choir sang to music by William Croft first used at the composer Handel’s funeral in 1759, and including Henry Purcell’s setting of “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts,” written for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695.  A state occasion then became a funeral at once like every other – a family followed mourning deeply their loss – and yet, of course, in its rich ceremonial and iconic content like no other.

Led slowly by the great Cross of Westminster, that had stood at the head of her coffin during the four-day lying in state at Westminster Hall, itself flanked by bleached candles – traditionally used at funerals – the choir continued, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.” These stark words jostling with those of comfort and mercy, and the assurance for each of us that at the end of life we will “rest from our labours”.

For many, no doubt, the sight of the young Prince George of Wales and his sister Princess Charlotte, walking steadily and perhaps somewhat uncomprehendingly behind their great grandmother’s coffin was an image that will live long in the mind.

As the Dean of Westminster bid the congregation – and billions across the world who joined the 2,500-strong body in the Abbey – to worship, he struck a note both of grief for a family and profound thanksgiving from nation and Commonwealth for a life of selfless service, following the pattern of the one who for her was the ultimate king of kings and her divine Saviour.

The hymn, The day thou gavest Lord is ended, seemed at first a strange choice at this point. It felt more like a hymn that should come at the end of the service than the beginning. But it’s simple acknowledgement of the rhythm of night and day, death and life, at the heart of all human living, set a narrative frame for what followed. As the choristers and trumpeters descant soared to the full height of the Abbey‘s gothic vaulting so the full-throated voices of all there sang of the earthly empires that pass away in contrast to the divine kingdom that stands for ever. Perhaps, as one observer noted a few days earlier, the occasion would indeed prove to represent the last dying echoes of an age of Empire that the UK has struggled to transcend let alone for which to express remorse?

As if by way of emphasis, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland QC, read the first lesson from 1 Corinthians, and a hauntingly simple unaccompanied setting of words from Psalm 42, by Judith Weir, Master of the King’s Musick, written for the service, gave forward impetus.

Colonialism to Commonwealth. Peoples and nations joined together now ‘in the house of God as friends’.

Liz Truss, the new UK Prime Minister, only in place two days at the moment of the Queen’s death, has had a tough ten days. She has been adjudged to have done well. She read words of comfort from John’s Gospel for mourners, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’, with dignity and perhaps more than a hint that she herself would need them in all that faces Britons at this point.

One of the Queen’s favourite hymns, The Lord’s my Shepherd, a Scottish version of Psalm 23, and sung at her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, led seamlessly to the sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pointing to the altar, where she had prayed at the start of her coronation he stated with striking simplicity, “She gave her allegiance to God first, before she received allegiance from her people.” In an address that skilfully wound a golden thread of service around themes of grief, faith, and hope, he alluded to the powerful moment during Covid when the Queen famously quoted the words of the wartime singer Vera Lynn, “we will meet again”, to assure people of hope itself. Ending with these words, we will meet again, it was as if she was continuing to offer assurance of the continuity of community and service of which she was so conspicuous an example.

This note of continuity and hope was expanded further as the choir sang Hubert Parry’s brilliant Song of Farewell, My soul there is a country far beyond the stars, setting words by Henry Vaughan, which commended her to the Divine friend in whose changeless embrace she would find eternal rest.

Prayers of thanksgiving offered by representatives of every Christian denomination – they had processed to their places with representatives of all the faith communities – led to a beautifully reflective moment when the choir sang Vaughan Williams’ setting – written for the Queen’s 1953 coronation – of words from Psalm 34. O taste and see how gracious the Lord is: blest is the man that trusteth in him.

Few there can have escaped the reflection this prompted, that here indeed was one blessed because she had shown such trust in the God in whom she so fervently believed.

Familiar words inevitably resonate differently on such an occasion. Was I the only one, for instance, who, when joining in the Lord’s Prayer, familiar the globe over not just to Christians – Gandhi once observed that it was practically an interfaith prayer – found new meaning when praying, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ – and the realisation that service to humanity means changed structures, the upending of this world’s inequalities?

The hymn Love divine, all Love’s excelling – to words by Charles Wesley, and sung at so many weddings and funerals the world over enjoined worshippers to the business of a renewed creation which is the essence of every faith’s core message. As the choristers and trumpeters again soared in descant, the image of casting crowns before the throne of heaven took on deep and literal meaning for the one at the heart of an occasion bathed with strong imagery.

As an introduction to the Commendation, this Weslyan image was a moment that lifted the whole act of worship onto a different – even a heavenly – plain. The Archbishop spoke the beautiful words of encouragement, ‘Go forth, O Christian soul …’ to which the choir responded with a setting – again written for the service – by Sir James MacMillan, of words of ultimate assurance and hope from Romans 8: ‘Who can separate us from the love of God’.

This unaccompanied and triumphantly ecstatic setting ended with an Alleluia and Amen which subsided almost into silence as the music evoked the journey to paradise, which was the movement to which the whole service was gently moving the deceased and directing the worshipper’s attention.

The Blessing, ‘God grant to the living grace, to the departed rest …’ with its two-fold assurance for the late Queen and for those mourning her loss, gave way to the Last Post and a two minute silence kept across the whole of the UK and far beyond in as awesomely observant and attentive a way as might ever be possible.

Reveille with its hint of reawakening and resurrection led to the familiar Gordon Jacob fanfare– also written for the Coronation – to the National Anthem. If anyone was in doubt of the reality of what has happened in the UK these past ten days, then singing God save the King brought home the sheer enormity of the change.

The service had begun with massed bagpipes. At its end, and from the Abbot’s Pew opposite the tomb of the unknown warrior the Queen’s Piper played the traditional Sleep, dearie, sleep, as he walked poignantly from the building, the sound heard ever more faintly until it disappeared.

At this moment, many were seen to wipe tears from their eyes.

The coffin was solemnly borne towards the Abbey door and onwards towards its processional journey to Windsor Castle and its place of rest in St George’s Chapel next to the Queen’s beloved Prince Philip, and near her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, in the chapel named after her father.

As the music of Bach and Elgar was played on the Abbey organ, the reverent silence of all spoke to the simple truth that we shall indeed not see her like again.

Chivers teaches religion and philosophy at UCL Academy in London.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.