Britons mourn Queen Elizabeth II in a long, orderly line

Ithere’s one thing the British excel at, and that’s queuing. And thousands of them did so on Wednesday afternoon in the hope of getting the chance to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth II, whose coffin will lie in condition at the Palace of Westminster in central London until the morning of her funeral on Monday 19 September.

Many of the people who spoke to TIME along the River Thames, just a 20-minute walk from the Houses of Parliament under normal circumstances, had waited more than five hours on a walkway spanning several miles. For some, it was a chance to pay their respects to the only monarch they had ever known. For others, it was an opportunity to experience British history first hand.

The last time anyone in Britain lay in state, ceremonial tradition in which a closed coffin is placed in a public place for mourners to pay their respects, was for Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, the Queen Mother, in 2002. The last time Britain mourned a sovereign was in 1952 after the death of the father of Queen Elizabeth II, King George VI.

The casket carrying Queen Elizabeth II is laid to rest in Westminster Hall for the recumbent state on September 14, 2022 in London.  (Dan Kitwood–Getty Images)

The casket carrying Queen Elizabeth II is laid to rest in Westminster Hall for the recumbent state on September 14, 2022 in London.

Dan Kitwood–Getty Images

“This is a moment in history,” said Jane, 65, who had been queuing since 11am, six hours before the public viewing of the Queen’s coffin began. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. So we keep queuing up.”

Unlike many of the somber ceremonies that took place after the Queen’s death, the atmosphere among those waiting in line was somewhat more festive. Many “queued friends” with those standing next to them, while others offered board games and snacks to pass the time. “People are happy to be here and happy to share this moment in history,” said Sadie Hamilton, a 21-year-old history student who joined the queue at 11am with a bouquet of flowers in hand. After several days of mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it felt “more”. [like] celebration of her life.

Read more: What you need to know about Queen Elizabeth II’s lie

“It’s so British it’s unbelievable” Nigel Faragethe right-wing British politician and Brexiteer wondered between TV appearances.

However, there are many for whom the last few days have been difficult – not only on an emotional level, but also on a spiritual level. As well as the country’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II was also the spiritual head of the Church of England, a role that now falls to her son, King Charles III. Among the volunteers scattered along the line path was a group wearing reflective vests with the words “faith team” printed on their backs. Harry Sider, a Jewish chaplain at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, tells TIME that she and her fellow religious counselors were there to help those for whom it was a more difficult and lonely event. “Most people seem to be in very good spirits,” says Sider. “But we had a few that weren’t. And some people don’t realize they’re going into a place where there’s a coffin.

People seen queuing for the Queen Elizabeth II monument in Westminster before it opens to the public from 5pm.  More than 1 million people are expected to line up at one time to see the recumbent Queen Elizabeth II at the Palace of Westminster.  (Hesther Ng–SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

People seen queuing for the Queen Elizabeth II monument in Westminster before it opens to the public from 5pm. More than 1 million people are expected to line up at one time to see the recumbent Queen Elizabeth II at the Palace of Westminster.

Hesther Ng–SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

British authorities are preparing for even more 1 million people to visit Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin over the next four days – most of whom are it is safe to take, are fans of the British constitutional monarchy. But not all who chose to stand in line necessarily identified as staunch monarchists. Many simply respected Elizabeth II’s long reign. “I was a big fan of the Queen – not necessarily as a monarch but as a person,” says Patrick Whelan, 20, from Hampshire, in south-west England. As he and his brother saw, she gave 70 years of her life to the service of the country. “I think we can find a few hours in our day to come and pay our respects in return,” said Connor Whelan, 23.

But for 50-year-old Elizabeth Munsach, who emigrated to Britain from Ghana more than 20 years ago, waiting to see the Queen’s coffin was like paying tribute to what she stood for. “She’s a special lady, no doubt about it – I can’t say anything bad about her,” says Mensah, who canceled her work shift to join the queue at the first possible opportunity. “We already have a king. The king will pass to another king. So I don’t know when we’ll have a queen again. That’s what makes her special.”

Read more: The future of the British monarchy is more uncertain than ever

Not everyone in Britain views the monarchy in such a positive light, of course. Some even have is arrested for protest events commemorating the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Yet for many Britons it represented more than the monarchy as an institution. She was a constant in their lives, a symbol of stability even in times of national turmoil, a source of comfort. At her death, Britons came together in ways they hadn’t done in years.

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Write to Yasmin Serhan c [email protected].

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