The United Kingdom knows how to grieve properly with silent elegance and dignity. All day yesterday and today, I've watched the livestream of the Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall as her sorrowing subjects pay their last respects.
The hushed silence of the magnificent hall built in 1079 by William II is broken only by the shuffle of feet. Every face is etched with sorrow. Despite the legend of British reserve and a stiff upper lip, some are openly weeping long before they reach her coffin. Others only burst into tears after paying their final respects to their Queen and turning away for the last time.
They hail from every corner of the globe, every race, every color, every creed.
Most are dressed for mourning. The shops have sold out of black ties which men pair with black or dark navy blue suits. Military men wear their dress uniforms or at least their beret and ribbons. Ladies wear a blouse with a black design or a black dress, perhaps even paired with a hat. Some wear black armbands. Most carry backpacks or tote bags with their provisions for waiting untold hours and shuffling miles in cold, damp London before undergoing an "airport like" security check prior to entering the Hall.
Police file past in their uniforms, doffing their hats before the casket.
Mothers and fathers carry their infants and toddlers in their arms.
The disabled on crutches, walkers, canes or in wheelchairs are ushered in on the ground floor to mesh with the queue that has slowly descended the stairs. Even service dogs are there. As a quiet patron of the Epilepsy Society, a malady that took the life of her uncle, Prince John (1905-1919), the Queen would be so touched that all are made welcome.
Veterans stand at attention and salute smartly only to dissolve in tears as they turn away from the catafalque.
Old-age pensioners who remember when she became Queen in 1952 are the most heart-breaking as they blot their eyes with handkerchiefs.
The religious make the sign of the Cross. Men bow or salute. Ladies bow or curtsey. Many blow kisses and some simply wave their final goodbye. Almost everyone looks back after bowing and walking away. According to Winston Churchill's grandson interviewed on Sky News, the thought uppermost in their minds at that moment is simply, "Thank you."
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And so it continues, hour after hour, all through the day and all through the night. The line stretches for three miles but is expected to reach as much as ten miles in length at the weekend.
A beautiful article written by Londonist refers to it as "the Queue to end all Queues." At least 1 million people are expected to join the queue while thousands around the globe are present in spirit via YouTube livestreams.
According to The Guardian, "The Queen’s four children will mount their own vigil at 7.30 pm on Friday, with the King, Princess Royal, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex standing in silence on the four corners of the catafalque." This is called the Vigil of the Princes, a tradition begun in 1936 when Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, King George V, passed away.
Unfortunately, only half of the expected 1 million people, some of whom have flown in from overseas, will be able to view Her Majesty's lying in state before the cut-off at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, September 19th, the day of her funeral.
People who live near the queue have been bringing food and tents to care for those waiting in line. The police are also providing numbered bracelets so people can run to the loo without losing their place in line. There are thousands of police, medical personnel and even British Sign Language translators available. The authorities are managing as well as they can providing medical care, refreshments and loos to the mourners but admit this is even more complicated than the 2012 London Olympics.
Unlike the Royals and all those actively involved in the pop and circumstance, the public are not expected to "eat dry" after 6 pm of the day preceding an official event. So far, there have only been three faintings, probably from dehydration: a royal archery in Scotland, a royal guard in Westminster Hall and Lady Gabriella Windsor. It's okay to faint; it's not okay to pop to the loo.
Why does the public make such a sacrifice for a lady who departed this vale of tears a week ago? Why do even those who oppose the monarchy and don't consider themselves Royalists subject themselves to untold hours of standing in the cold and rain of London only for a few moments in Westminster Hall?
Because it has nothing to do with politics nor even really the monarchy nor royalty. It has everything to do with Elizabeth the woman...and this incredible moment in history. "We’re not here for the monarchy — we are here for her," Sujata Mahendran told The New York Times.
The New York Times goes on to say, "Everyone had their own reasons for joining the shuffling procession. But many expressed similar sentiments: a desire to honor the queen; the need to express, somehow, the loss and grief they felt; a sense of being part of a moment bigger than themselves."
It's moments like this that bring us all together and bring out the best in us. Just as she did in life, even in her death Queen Elizabeth has ushered in a special time, "...when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people...as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." (From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.)
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