An American in Queen Elizabeth's funeral queue: Why I went, and what I found there

What causes someone to stand in line for hours for a person they had never met?

Published September 20, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Members of the public queue along the South Bank of the River Thames, opposite the Palace of Westminster, as they wait in line to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II (MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the public queue along the South Bank of the River Thames, opposite the Palace of Westminster, as they wait in line to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II (MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

LONDON — I couldn't help but think it should have rained yesterday — positively bucketed down, just as it had done at her coronation over 69 years ago in June 1953. The tableau of a sodden funeral procession for Queen Elizabeth II would have made a fitting bookend for her reign. But instead, the skies over London were a stately grey, the color of the Portland stone that clads so many of the city's buildings, with bits of blue and gentle sunshine sometimes peering through.

Serenity was the mood among the crowds as well, and not just yesterday during the funeral procession. I have been here for the past six days. On Thursday, September 8, when Buckingham Palace released the statement noting that Queen Elizabeth's doctors were concerned for her health, I read the tea leaves. This was Palace cypher — the modern (yet curiously more oblique) version of the statement released by George V's doctor, Lord Dawson, in January 1936: "The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close." I booked a hotel and later, a flight, determined to be here to bear witness.

I had always said I would come. Since childhood, I have been riveted by British history, and I wanted to pay tribute to the queen and to mark the passing of an era. After arriving on Wednesday morning and depositing my bags at the hotel, I immediately joined the queue to attend her Lying-in-State. Then a mere two miles long, it would later stretch to Southwark Park, five miles and over a 20-hour wait down the Thames. I made it in early, before the queen had even been moved from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, and I was immediately welcomed into a section diverse in age, gender and ethnicity. A contingent of five Londoners adopted me, and over the course of the eight hours it took us to reach the catafalque, we chatted about our nations' dual tragedies of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, lamented the recent Dobbs decision, traded bits of English history trivia, and brushed past a smirking Nigel Farage, the former Brexit campaigner, as he reported for GB News.

Inside Westminster Hall, beneath the timbered medieval ceiling where Anne Boleyn dined in 1533 after her coronation at nearby Westminster Abbey, there was a hushed reverence. It was still, despite the two lines of mourners filing past on either side of the catafalque. Atop the coffin, the Imperial State Crown, orb and sceptre sparkled and gleamed. But what has lingered even more for me is the purple skirt of the catafalque, which seemed to glow beneath the floodlights, and the shiver of history that prickled my arms. Back outside, groups that had been chatting for hours maintained the silence from the Hall, lulled into some inner cave of contemplation. Finally, ours resolved to retire to a nearby bar along the Thames.

What causes someone to stand in line for eight hours, or for over 20 hours, as I heard someone say they had, for a person they most likely had never met? We sat at the terrace bar for three hours sharing stories, and I heard how one of my new friends was acting as a stand-in for her elderly mother, who was unable to endure the queue. Another spoke of the need to show up for the queen because she had shown up for her country, even when it was obvious her health was failing.

We Americans have nothing like this, and I often think we are the lesser for it.

I have encountered these dual dimensions of grief, collective and personal, throughout my visit. On Friday, a dear friend and I viewed the floral tributes in Green Park just opposite Buckingham Palace. There, the cards and letters spoke of Queen Elizabeth in personal terms. One tribute noted how Britain had given the writer's father shelter from Nazi Germany. Another recalled how the queen had "demonstrated to the world…that a woman can achieve whatever she sets her heart and mind to do." One more spoke of how the monarch had visited her mother's bedside and took her hand while she was in hospital in Sierra Leone in 1961, and the comfort the visit had brought her.

As we moved about the labyrinth of tributes, we encountered a woman from the north of England. Her neck was covered in gold necklaces — at least a dozen of varying sizes and lengths — and as we chatted with her it became clear that the jewelry was not the only weight she carried. Ever since the queen's death, she knew she had to be here, she explained. Queen Elizabeth had remained a constant to the country, but also to this woman's life. As she took in the seemingly endless rows and mounds of bouquets, both store-bought and home-grown — roses, carnations and sunflowers, clutches of rowan and hawthorn berries — hand-drawn and written cards, flags and stuffed corgis and Paddington Bears, she began to realize how her grief was also prompting her to take personal stock. She thought of her mother who, had she been alive, would have insisted on laying flowers alongside her daughter. "It's the continuity, isn't it?" she said. "Because when [the queen] died she also took with her everyone I've lost."

We Americans have nothing like this, and I often think we are the lesser for it. Whatever one thinks of the royals or the very notion of monarchy, there is something to be said for having a national symbol that is intended to unite the country and provide continuity and stability. The American presidency, which rests on the principle of the dual executive, the combination of head of state and head of government, has — at least until the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021 — provided continuity. But it has not always offered stability. How much more stable and less anxious might the national mood have seemed if, during the presidency of Donald Trump, there had been a separate head of state to embody steadiness and constancy, someone who could create a space for respectful dialogue across difference?

The night before the queen's funeral, just before 8 pm GMT, I sat in a Bloomsbury pub with a pint and a plate of fish and chips. A typical English pub, it was loud and raucous, and the televisions were tuned to sports channels. The national minute of silence was scheduled to start, and as I checked my watch I wondered what would happen, if and how the tribute would be observed. At two minutes till the hour, as everyone was laughing and talking, the landlord tuned one television to BBC One and switched the others off. "Quiet!" he yelled — in a polite English way, of course — just a few seconds before the anchor announced the moment of silence. The entire room fell quiet, still. People stopped eating. No one touched their pints. Some bowed their heads, while others stared at Big Ben on the screen. For a whole minute, the silence was kept. And when it ended, the pub erupted in cheers.

There are republicans and critics of the monarchy here in Britain, and they can be quite vocal. It's a valid question — whether a hereditary monarchy should survive in this modern era as we grapple with the legacies of empire and colonialism. Still, surveys taken across decades have consistently shown that here in Britain, those who support abandoning the monarchy make up a small minority, and for these days of national mourning, they have been, with few exceptions, mostly silent in public settings. Whatever their political beliefs, many of them believe the queen deserves honor for her decades of service and longevity. And perhaps they, too, feel on some level a bit like the woman in Green Park or the people in the queue — that it is good and even necessary to take a moment to reflect.

Yesterday, as I stood near the intersection of The Mall and Horse Guards, I saw the coffin of Her Late Majesty The Queen pass, pulled by a team of navy ratings. I saw the new king marching in the street just a few feet away, his florid face a mask of grief and determination. As I lay down last night in Bloomsbury, I kept recalling those images and others: the sound of central London falling silent for two minutes, hundreds of thousands of people reciting the Lord's Prayer; the steady, haunting cadence of muffled drums, the clop of horses' hooves on pavement. I thought of my companions in the crowd, the couple who took the train from the Midlands in the wee hours and the pair of women who packed extra packets of crisps to share with total strangers.

I don't know what it will take for us to return to a place of mutual respect and goodwill. But as I have walked the labyrinth of this city in these historic days of mourning, I have seen those qualities on display in tribute to her, and when she passed by me today, I bowed my head.

By Jason Kyle Howard

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of "A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music" and coauthor of "Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal." His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, The Millions, Utne Reader, and on NPR. He directs the creative writing program at Berea College and serves on the faculty of Spalding University's Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.

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