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‘The closed quiet of waiting, watching, saying a final farewell’

17 September 2022

Hattie Williams reflects on a profound experience in Westminster Hall

Alamy

Members of the public view the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, lying in state in Westminster Hall

Members of the public view the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, lying in state in Westminster Hall

SILENCE among the many is profound. None more so than the closed quiet of waiting, watching, saying a final farewell.

Few sounds disturb this hush as I enter the vastness of Westminster Hall on Friday night. I try to prepare myself for the magnitude of the collective history I am about to experience, but I have been momentarily distracted, having seen a man being handcuffed by several vested police officers shortly before we are led through a side entrance to the Hall. I later read reports of a “disturbance” of the vigil around this time – it must have been promptly swept away. An anomaly in an otherwise remarkably peaceful week, all views considered.

We are swiftly ushered in. Before my eyes have adjusted to the unexpectedly bright lights hanging from its vaulted ceiling, the late Queen, shrouded in history, lies before me.

Her coffin, draped in the gold-embroidered Royal Standard, on its purple-clad catafalque, is surreal in its closeness. Four pillared candles flicker in each corner, and the Wanamaker Cross — one of four processional crosses from Westminster Abbey — stands tall at the head, its gold and sapphire panels twinkling. The distinctive members of the Household Division and Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London who hold vigil tonight are almost perfectly still.

I am already looking back as we pass by. Her glittering crown looks tiny — out of proportion, somehow, with death. A short distance away, in the press gallery, our watch begins. Almost immediately, the quiet is broken by the rhythmic tap, tap, tapping of heels on the impressive flagstones down the centre of the Hall. The guard is changing. Smooth and precise, each of the eight take their places, bow their heads, and one vigil moves seamlessly into the next.

And in a hesitant stream of varied paces, hundreds of people in beautiful diversity continue to pass by — in pairs, in groups, solitary — the carpet circling the hall silencing their footfall. There is not a wisp of disappointment or disgruntlement after what has been for most eight hours plus queuing in the increasing cold. Eyes are dabbed, palms are pressed on hearts, heads are bowed. Arms reach around one another, hands are clasped, foreheads kissed. Watching from the gallery, as for the millions viewing the livestream at home, it feels at first like I am intruding on something deeply private, personal — or it would, if I were not part of that strange, collective emotion that is national mourning.

Shortly before my visit on Friday night, the King spoke at a Royal reception with the country’s faith leaders, at which he said: “As a member of the Church of England, my Christian beliefs have love at their very heart. By my most profound convictions, therefore — as well as by my position as Sovereign — I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.”

What I am witnessing in Westminster Hall is love. Love for our late Sovereign, yes, but also what she represented to so many people through both her longevity of life and lived experience: familiarity, identity, stability, commitment, family, and faithfulness.

It was well known that many thousands more people would file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II than that of her mother in 2002. But the turnout this week — the respect and high community spirit — seems to have surprised even the most generous of commentators. Even in her death, the late Queen has brought her subjects together in deep, spreading community that is so desperately sought and needed in this country.

The heavy silence of these respects being paid is not oppressive, but clear and united, and as strong as death. Because that is the reality. Beneath priceless jewels and flourishing cloths lies the body of a woman who once was and is no more in this world. And in each of those briefest of moments — as thousands upon thousands of individuals continue pass by, acknowledging her last vessel with a nod, genuflect, a tentative bow, even the blowing of a kiss — she is not just with the people, she is one of the people. Mortal. Human. And in the end, in God’s hands.

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