The world is watching the last journey of Elizabeth Windsor. Her simple oak coffin has wound its way from Scotland to London through palaces and cathedrals, past grieving crowds and the thunder of the cannon.
Even now, lying in state for four days beneath the ancient stone vaults of Westminster Hall, she is not alone. The line of mourners waiting to say goodbye is nearly five miles long, a human chain whose links are a people’s shared lives and loss.
A nation prepares, and a world waits, for the ultimate in ceremonial tributes, the Monday state funeral in Westminster Abbey. President Joe Biden will lead the foreign dignitaries. The new king, Charles III, will be the chief mourner.
The grit and glory of Britain’s past will be on show: the splendid uniform, the heraldic precision, the seamen from the Royal Navy who will haul the funeral bier through the streets of London.
And then, as the presidents and monarchs return to life, Elizabeth will travel the final leg, out to the chapel at Windsor Castle. At last, she will be alone. Her remains will join those of her ancestors in a private family ceremony, to the skirl of a lone bagpiper.
Britain’s power is not as great as it was in 1952, when Elizabeth’s father George VI died. He was the last emperor; she became the first queen of the post-imperial age. Decade by decade, the British have trimmed their pomp to fit the circumstances. The state funeral, the monarchy’s many defenders argue, is a bargain, costing each British household about 5 pence (6 cents).
No one quibbled about how much it cost to send off Queen Victoria. But that was in 1901, when Britain was at the top of the world. Monday’s state funeral will be the first since Winston Churchill’s in 1965. All the other flourishes of the old glories we’ve seen, from Princess Diana’s 1997 procession to Prince Philip’s COVID-restricted send-off last year, were “ceremonial funerals.”
It’s only a state funeral if sailors haul your coffin, and if, as Britain stands still for the two minutes’ silence, you know that one age is closing and another is opening. For Churchill, the dockers of the East End, who had borne the brunt of the Blitz, lowered their cranes onto the dark Thames as if they were doffing their caps.
There are no cranes there now. Docklands, as we now call it, is the back office of the City of London. The warehouses that carried the scents of India and Africa in their dust are apartments for bankers. The East End, always the first stop for immigrants, is now home to the descendants of empire. Only hipsters wear flat caps in England now — and David Beckham, who donned one when he queued through the night to view the queen’s catafalque. And there’s no doffing. Only the Thames runs on forever.
Britain today is less deferential and more democratic, and life is much easier and longer. Churchill’s funeral was the hinge between the old England of coal mines and the class system, empire and aristocracy, and the new, Technicolor England. The world’s master became the world’s entertainer. Within a year or two of Churchill’s death, the kind of uniform he’d worn in deadly earnest as a soldier in Afghanistan and Sudan could be seen on the streets of Swinging London and on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper,” like a ghost of empire.
Elizabeth’s funeral also casts us into a new era. She was perhaps the most famous face of them all in the golden age of global media. In the ’60s, Britain became the hub of an empire of entertainment. All roads led to London, once you’d finished a season in Vegas.
But every empire must fall. Digital media have made the world smaller but more various and more provincial. In the future, no one can be as famous as Elizabeth was or as her most famous subjects, John, Paul, George and Ringo, were. That will make Britain smaller, too.
The past is suddenly slipping away, the present is disordered and a dangerous future is rushing towards us like a cold wind. Elizabeth was one of our last witnesses to our Finest Hour, when Britain stood alone against Hitler in summer 1940. On Monday, we’ll say goodbye to that age of heroism and sacrifice.
We will need the memory of her generation in the trials to come. Elizabeth’s example of duty, dignity and decency struck the deepest of human chords. How typical it is that her death is bringing out the best once more. Imagine what the British could make of their society and their islands if they carried this moment of unity and compassion forward along with their mortgages and gas bills.
Our upper lip isn’t as stiff as it once was, but the British are still the British, just as the Thames is the same river that carried the body of the first Elizabeth up to the Palace of Whitehall in the days of Shakespeare. At a moment when history stands still, even for two minutes, we see ourselves in the long view.
The British might not be at ease in the shadow of their history, but it is one of their greatest resources. They will need their past now and in the future.
Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.