The silence was palpable as the Imperial State Crown was removed from Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin and placed on the altar in St George’s Chapel – the first time in 70 years the dazzling symbol of the British monarchy has been separated from the sovereign.
My assignment covering a grieving nation was to analyze what those fleeting seconds meant for that society, from the upper echelons of British nobility to newly arrived migrants hoping to carve out a better life for themselves in a new country.
The 10 days I have spent here since Elizabeth’s death have taken me from the lavish interiors of Windsor Castle – the official residence of the Royal Family – to forgotten quarters beyond the hustle and bustle of London, the glamorous British capital.
I stood in line for hours with strangers devoted to the Queen and desperate to say a final goodbye. Standing in the rain with thousands hoping to catch a glimpse of the hearse whistling towards the imposing gates of Buckingham Palace. I have witnessed countless tears shed by young and old, from people as far away as South Africa or as close as the English town of Reading.
In the spaces between the devoted and the apathetic, I’ve met Britons who are ambivalent or undecided about the importance of the monarchy in their lives – or completely indifferent.
Diaspora communities, whose ancestors suffered from the brutalities of British colonialism, still struggle to come to terms with this legacy. A younger generation of immigrants has yet to reconcile this violent history with their own identity as Britons. Some have told me they consider themselves ‘Londonians’ – identifying with the hip, cosmopolitan capital – but not ‘Britons’, a part of the UK whose monarch is head of state .
I’ve also met people who really don’t care.
A few weekend getaways planned to avoid crowds swooning over the late monarch. A relentless barrage of Twitter memes poke fun at the Queen’s demise.
Yet history loomed large inside St George’s Chapel in Windsor on Monday, the day of Elizabeth’s funeral.
Founded in the 14th century by King Edward III, the ornate chapel has belonged to the monarchy for 1,000 years. It has been the scene of many royal events, from funerals to christenings to royal weddings like that of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
Ornate stone craftsmanship draws the eye to the ellipse-shaped roof, irreplaceable and meticulous woodwork lines the way to the catafalque. Here, the Chapel Chapter Clerk explained to a group of reporters how every step of the Commitment Service, a more intimate gathering compared to a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, was carefully planned by the Queen.
Each anthem was his choice, except the very last one.
The removal of the wreath was an extraordinary moment, the clerk explained. Although imbued with the spectacle of royal grandeur, it embodies a powerful moment of change: going from the head of the sovereign’s coffin to the altar, to return to the head of a new sovereign – King Charles III – when he is crowned.
Yet the vast majority of the country are unaware of the intimate details of the life of the late monarch they loved – they spent their whole lives watching from afar.
“We couldn’t get as close as we wanted to see it properly,” said Rachel Mfundiri, who still stood outside the imposing castle gates after Elizabeth’s burial. She had come to witness the story but now that it was over, she didn’t really know where to go.
“You don’t know what will happen next, to see how the monarchy changes,” she said, as the first raindrops of the day began to fall. “It’s sad, very sad.”
In London, it was business as usual.
Restaurants and bars were buzzing with tourists until late hours. In a bar, a singer dressed in a 1930s costume raised a glass – “to our lovely queen”, she said, followed by “but I can’t dedicate this next song to her”. She continued to sing a George Michael tune to the applause of the audience.
I found support for the late queen in unexpected places.
Inside London’s Central Mosque, an old photograph of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, is pasted alongside bulletins announcing recent events.
The late king opened the Islamic Cultural Centre, now part of the Grand Mosque complex, in 1944 in recognition of Muslim efforts in fighting alongside the British Empire during World War II.
“We have always had close ties with the monarchy,” said Ayaz Zuberi, spokesman for the mosque.
Even among ardent Elizabeth supporters, it was not possible to generalize their individual reasons for wanting to honor her years of service. For many, it was personal: a family member had just passed away, a deep sense of respect lingered.
Or, in the case of Mili Patel, wanting to show her young daughter the importance of the past.
Patel had folded up his lawn chair and was walking away from the lawns of the Long Walk, the processional way leading to Windsor Castle. She had come with her daughter Sybill, arriving at 5 a.m. and staying 12 hours to see the Queen – or at least her coffin – for the last time.
“It will be the last queen of (my daughter’s) generation,” she said. “I wanted her to see it.”
Follow all AP stories about the British Royal Family at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.