Some 4.1 billion people worldwide are likely to have watched either all or much of today’s state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II on television or streaming media. It’s a number nearly double the 2.5 billion people who tuned in to the obsequies for Princess Diana, Elizabeth’s immensely popular sometime daughter-in-law, killed in an auto accident in 1997 and memorialized as “the people’s princess” by the likes of Elton John and others.
Credit the vastly larger numbers of expected viewers for Elizabeth’s funeral to technology that has turned cellphones into pocket television sets instantly available. But tech can’t explain the 10-mile-long lines snaking through London in which hundreds of thousands of Britons have waited as long as 24 hours, braving chilly and sleepless nights, to file in person past her coffin as she lay in state in Westminster Hall. Some had traveled hundreds of miles from all over Britain to pay their respects to the late monarch.
Nor can it explain the worldwide appetite for nonstop news coverage of the mourning ceremonies for the 96-year-old queen—to the point that grousing about “media overkill” has become a box to check for left-leaning journalists here in the United States. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch complained that “watching a royal hearse roll for hours on end” isn’t appropriate for a country that fought “so valiantly to reject monarchial tyranny all those years ago.”
There are many reasons for this enormous outpouring of respect and affection, even here in Britain’s rebellious former colony. There is Elizabeth’s sterling character: her devotion to her family and her faith during a 70-year reign marked by her modesty and graciousness and never scarred by the kind of personal scandal that tainted some of her offspring—and also her unflagging commitment to her public duties.
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said in a speech on her 21st birthday in 1947, five years before she became queen. She lived up to that promise selflessly and tirelessly.
There’s also the sense, as New York Post contributor Philip Terzian has pointed out, that Queen Elizabeth, as head of state but not head of the government in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, could rise above the ceaseless political maneuvering that has resulted in at least some of our own heads of state, our presidents, proving to be less worthy of the public’s respect than others. In Britain, “Prime ministers come and go but the British sovereign endures,” Terzian wrote.
And not to be ignored is the British flair, honed in centuries of tradition, for a kind of pageantry that leaves the solemn rituals of other countries, including our own, in the dust. The photographs of Elizabeth’s lying-in-state are riveting: the purple-draped catafalque, the coffin clothed in the crimson-and-gold royal flag and surmounted with a wreath of white roses and her crown, the cross at her head, the magnificently uniformed royal bodyguards keeping vigil. No wonder thousands of Britons forfeited sleep and food to see this spectacle in person.
But the real drawing card is something else: the ritual itself, which isn’t simply a marker of death and burial and mourning, of slow-rolling hearses and (as Will Bunch described them) “boring church services.” It’s a marker of the sacral function of the monarchy, persisting in our otherwise thoroughly secularized age.
In 1957, the medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz published a book, “The King’s Two Bodies,” that has since become a classic. Kantorowicz argued that a medieval king wasn’t just a man sitting on a throne but the body politic itself, a living representation of the society he governed. The king’s corporeal body might age and die, but his body politic lives forever in his successors. The monarchy thus has a sacred aspect, above any human office, and in Britain it has been a specifically Christian institution since the seventh century. It isn’t surprising that one of the features of every British coronation for the past 300 years, including Elizabeth’s, has been the singing of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” a translation of the medieval liturgical antiphon for a king’s anointing that derives from the biblical anointing of King Solomon.
In today’s Britain, and indeed in much of the West, churchgoing is in steep decline, and it’s common to regard the monarchy as a taxpayer-supported fossil with a dim future. Indeed, when Diana died in 1997, there was a surge of populist contempt for her former husband, then Prince Charles and heir to the throne, and for the royal family in general, believed to have mistreated the young princess. Revelations about Charles’s younger brother Prince Andrew’s alleged dalliances with an underage girl on Jeffrey Epstein’s island added fuel to the fire, and many predicted that the monarchy would not outlive Elizabeth.
Yet when King Charles III formally ascended the throne at St. James’s Palace on Sept. 10, two days after his mother’s death, huge crowds gathered outside to sing “God Save the King” and give three cheers. There seemed to be an instinctive understanding that monarchy was an institution that transcended individual monarchs and that it was an institution worthy of honor.
Even in our secular age, people yearn for faith and ritual and ceremonial meaning that derives from something outside the ordinariness of daily life. It’s not surprising that the ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral resonate so deeply with billions of people.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.