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Artillery Row

Love and remembrance

The funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II

When the Queen was crowned, there was famously a debate as to whether the event should be televised at all. Might people watch it disrespectfully? Seven decades later, her funeral was being broadcast on every channel, with even Babenation and Television X suspending their regular, um, programming in order to carry it. It’s really hard to know whether this represents progress.

Broadcast quality has, at least, improved since those days. We know how much high-definition television has improved the experience of viewing sport and movies, but it’s been less noticed how much more enjoyable it makes state funerals. Westminster Abbey looked magnificent, each towering arch a tribute to the skill of long-dead craftsmen who laboured across centuries. Modern technology makes it possible in ways previously unavailable to enjoy truly beautiful things, from stained-glass windows to Justin Trudeau’s cheekbones. 

But the viewers at home and the crowds lining the streets were the losers. If you wanted to know who the people who mattered were, both in Britain and globally, you only had to see who was in the abbey. The cabinet were there, of course, and the most senior MPs. There was Sir Graham Brady, a few seats down from Iain Duncan Smith, who had a huge smile on his face. Kwasi Kwarteng was explaining something to Therese Coffey, tapping his hand on the pew in front of him to illustrate his point. 

There were more of them to come. Coaches pulled up outside and disgorged heads of state like a very high-end school trip. There was Emmanuel Macron! Here, so very important that he was allowed to come in his own car, was Joe Biden! These were the people who had made it to the very top of the pile.

The hour was approaching. Here was Boris Johnson, hair unbrushed, in a lounge suit. We know he owns a tailcoat, but perhaps the Bullingdon look would have been a bit much. A few rows behind him sat Jacob Rees-Mogg. The pair’s most famous interaction with the late monarch was almost exactly three years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that they’d unlawfully advised her to prorogue Parliament. After a moment like that, men with a sense of shame might have stayed away from the funeral, but we must once again marvel at whatever it is they teach them at Eton.

Liz Truss arrived, to the bafflement of Australian TV commentators, who explained to their viewers that they couldn’t be expected to identify every minor royal. She made her way in with her trademark awkwardness. 

And here, finally, was the coffin

And here, finally, was the coffin. The person everyone was thinking about was of course the one face we couldn’t see. She did, however, even after death, have a final message. There has been much talk in the past week of how the Queen kept her views to herself, but this wasn’t true in all areas. An under-reported feature of her annual Christmas broadcasts was how much, over the last 20 years, she talked about her Christian faith.

Anyone wondering whether those were asides made out of politeness found the answer in the funeral service, in which the Queen had been closely involved. It was in the choice of the hymns, in the prayers and most especially in the readings. If someone chooses 1 Corinthians 15 – “O death, where is thy sting” – and then John 14 – “In my Father’s house are many mansions” – for their own funeral, they’re making a point. They are, indeed, almost laying down a challenge to the preacher.

A challenge for the person doing the reading, too, of course. “Ye believe in God, believe also in me,” Truss told us, and honestly, we didn’t. It’s hard, reading the King James text in Westminster Abbey in a global broadcast, but she is the prime minister, and her delivery remains Head Girl.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, knows how to work a church. There was some suggestion that this was going to be the most-watched religious service in history. It would be easy, at such a moment, to give a brief talk about the good that the Queen had done in her life and then move on, instantly forgotten, to the next beautiful anthem. But a gauntlet had been thrown down by the woman in the coffin. Would Justin Welby pick it up? 

He would. “The pattern for many leaders is to be exalted in life and forgotten after death,” he told a room packed with the world’s most exalted people. “The pattern for all who serve God – famous or obscure, respected or ignored – is that death is the door to glory.”

His sermon was just 502 words long, and none of them were wasted. But the line that struck home came right in the middle. “Those who serve will be loved and remembered,” Welby said, “when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.” 

We looked out over the abbey, filled with so many people who had clung so very hard to power and privilege, who had used one to secure the other and whose very presence was a sign of their success at it. Was it too much to hope that some of them had, briefly, felt uncomfortable? 

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