My Dearest Princes in the Tower:

We are talking ROYAL FUNERALS this week. You want the minutiae of British imperial death protocol, and I am here to deliver it to you. 

I love a state funeral. Not because someone died – that would be shitty – but because it’s a chance to learn and observe so much about how our culture processes death. What are our most important rituals? How does the public mourn? How do death rituals facilitate the transfer of power? How can they lead to healing?

With Queen Elizabeth’s funeral this week, we get an excellent opportunity to watch archaic, monarchic (IS THIS A REAL WORD) traditions unfold in a thoroughly modern way on social media and television. You may have heard this already, but the Royal handlers had a code for the Queen’s death – “London Bridge is Down” – and the machinery of the monarchy started grinding as soon as her head hit the pillow. The UK went immediately into mourning, and protocol rules.

I’m fresh off a funeral myself, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them recently.

My grandfather died a few weeks ago, at age 96. He beat Lizzy by a few months, but both of them lived almost an entire century, which is really something to behold. I realized this week that public mourning is not so different from private mourning. The news will recap the Queen’s life, but a family does that through eulogies and obituaries. Some of the commentary will be critical – questioning the value of empire and criticizing the Queen for the role her government played in oppression, war, and genocide. Most families will not have to contend with actual war crimes, but deaths have a way of shaking loose secrets and resentments. Grievances will be aired as part of the normal mourning process. In public as well as private, the dead will be viewed and committed – to the ground, to ashes, and the family will bear witness. 

I wanted to look at some of the specific rituals of the monarch’s funeral, and what purpose they serve in public mourning.  

The Procession

Her Majesty’s body wasn’t just loaded into the ME’s van or a funeral home hearse. It went on PROCESSION through the streets. Kind of like a parade! Elizabeth died in Scotland, so her body was first transported to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. There, her Scottish subjects could see and mourn her. For regular people, this might be the only chance to pay their respects. Lining the streets and watching the dead monarch process by is tradition that allows citizens participate in the death rituals. The state funeral is a hot ticket item that will be attended mostly by heads of state and other royals, the public won’t be there.

Lying in rest in Scotland serves another, perhaps unspoken, purpose. The relationship between Britain and her colonies and commonwealth nations is changing. The Scots have been seriously considering seeking independence in the last decade, especially after Brexit. As they move closer to cutting ties with England, Elizabeth may well be the last monarch to process down the Royal Mile. Thousands turned out to see her, but many professed that they mourned the Queen as a person, not as a ruler or figurehead. Polling shows that only 45% of Scots want to keep the monarchy, and a referendum on independence is coming up again in 2023. Seen through this lens, the farewell in Scotland may be a goodbye to the crown as a whole.

As they move closer to cutting ties with England, Elizabeth may well be the last monarch to process down the Royal Mile. Thousands turned out to see her, but many professed that they mourned the Queen as a person, not as a ruler or figurehead. Polling shows that only 45% of Scots want to keep the monarchy, and a referendum on independence is coming up again in 2023. Seen through this lens, the farewell in Scotland may be a goodbye to the crown as a whole.

A manuscript illustration of mourners bearing the remains of Elizabeth I (died 1603).

The funeral procession of Elizabeth I (died 1603), from a manuscript with some of the earliest pictorial records of the funeral processions of English sovereigns.

A manuscript illustration of mourners carrying the body of Anne of Bohemia, 1394
Depiction of the funeral procession of Anne of Bohemia, queen to Richard II, 1394

Lying in State

When a public official dies, their body is displayed in a state building for members of the public to visit and pay respects. If the body is displayed outside a public building – as in St. Giles Cathedral – it’s called lying in repose or lying in rest. Like I said, PROTOCOL.

After a procession in which her children and grandchildren march in guard, Queen Elizabeth will lie in state at Westminster Hall. Her coffin will be draped in a flag and placed on a catafalque. The imperial state crown is placed on top of the coffin. It will be guarded 24 hours a day.

While the Queen is lying in state, anyone can come to visit her body and pay respects. This, along with the procession, is a way for the public to mourn her death. Seeing the casket with its attendant regalia and guard is a way to make the death real. In the days before the 24 hour broadcast, seeing a body (or a coffin) proved that the monarch was dead – something that was necessary to ensure the legitimacy of the next ruler. Queen Elizabeth herself understood the theatrical power of the crown, saying “I have to be seen to be believed.” It’s no different for her funeral.

Royal bodies belong to the public. The public bear witness to their births, coronations, marriages, baptisms, and deaths. For many citizens, this is the closest they’ll ever get to the monarch. Historically, effigies of kings and queens made of wood and wax were placed on top of the coffin to bring them even closer to their subjects.

A photo of Edward VII's coffin lying in state surrounded by guards
The body of Edward VII lying in state, May 1910

State Funeral

There are two types of official funerals in England – state and ceremonial. A state funeral is only a monarch or a person of great service that a monarch approves a state funeral for – for instance, Winston Churchill.

A ceremonial royal funeral is given for members of the royal family not technically at the head. The Queen Mum, Princess Diana, and Prince Phillip had ceremonial royal funerals.

After 4 days lying in state, the Queen’s coffin will be moved from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey for funeral services. A group of royal guards will act as pallbearers for her coffin, which is lined with lead and can weigh up to a quarter of ton. Which, damn. I hope those boys got hazard pay.

The funeral will be held at the iconic Westminster Abbey. It’s the church where monarchs have been baptized, crowned, married, mourned, and buried. A whole slew of them are buried in the various crypts, under floors of cloisters and chapels. In modern times, ashes have been interred here instead of whole remains.

We owe the current royal funeral protocol to Queen Victoria, a famous mourner who made death trendy. When her husband died young, she went into mourning and never left. They called her the “Widow of Windsor.” She planned an elaborate funeral for herself, and her son Edward VII used his flair for pageantry to dial up the drama. According to the Guardian, they were way more boring before this.

The funeral is the part of the public ritual attended by the highest ranking guests. The royal family, from Britain as well as other parts of Europe, will attend, along with world leaders and dignitaries. The service will begin precisely at 11am on September 20 with two minutes of national silence. The Brits aren’t fucking around, either – even the airspace around the event is closed to make sure everyone is KEEPING THE SILENCE.

A photo of a horse drawn carriage carrying the coffin of Edward VII. The carraige is flanked on both sides by long rows of armed grenadiers walking alongside. More armed grenadiers stand at attention on each side of the street. Beyond the grenadiers are throngs of onlookers.
The Funeral Procession for Edward VII En-Route to Westminster
A photo of ten horse drawn carriages making their way down a street lined on both sides with armed grenadiers and other military personnel in uniform. Behind them are thick crowds of onlookers.
The Funeral Procession for Edward VII, the Royal Carriages


The Queen will be buried on the grounds at Windsor, the palace residence, at St. George’s Chapel. Like Westminster Abbey, this church has seen a lot of royal events – Meghan and Harry were married there! King George II was the last monarch buried at Westminster, the others since have been buried here. There are several vaults onsite, including one containing the remains of King Henry VIII and his PROBABLY favorite queen Jane Seymour.

Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Phillip, died about a year ago. Her wish was that they be interred together, but that couldn’t officially happen until Elizabeth died. Because of, you know, PROTOCOL. Philip has been on ice in the Royal Vault since his death, but when the Queen is interred in her special tomb on the property, he will join her there. While the Vault is the final resting place for some (Like King George III of HAMILTON fame), it’s been used as a holding facility recently.

The is an opening in the floor of the chapel where the coffin will descend via motorized lift. None of the royals interred at St. George’s Chapel are actually buried – they are stored in crypts and vaults underground. That’s why their coffins are lined with lead and hermetically sealed. This video has some great photos and maps of the burials at the Chapel.

An exterior shot of St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle. It was built in the late-medieval Perpendicular Gothic style in 1475
St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

Death and Empire

Regardless of how much power Queen Elizabeth actually had over British policy, there’s no denying that the world sees her as the symbol of the British Empire. Her death is calling into question the need for the Commonwealth and the monarchy itself. Traditional media are whining about the lack of respect from some corners of the world, but you’d have to be completely fucking deluded to be surprised by it.

In 1867, British theorist Walter Bagehot wrote, “The more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show.” Baghot was talking about the decline of the monarchy and its transition to a more symbolic role. Symbolism requires showmanship, and Queen Victoria knew how to harness that. Elizabeth, who reigned just a few years longer than Victoria, continued in that grand tradition.

Maybe this funeral is elaborate because the whole thing is dying. Charles is already a senior citizen as he takes the throne, fussy and fumbling with the promotion he’s waited so long for. Harry and Meghan ditched out in a very public and spectacular way. A Princess Diana movie, documentary, AND The Crown Diana season came out just last year. They’re showing us the dark side of the “state and show” and the real toll it takes on the human beings involved. Combine that withmore open criticism of the British Empire, and a more honest accounting of its misdeeds, and the decline of the monarchy seems like a real possibility. All of that is being reflected in the coverage and conversation, which makes this about so much more than one woman’s life and death.