Queen’s coffin begins final journey with normal British life on hold

Photo for The Washington Post by James Forde
Left: General views in Central London two days after Queen Elizabeth II passed away.

LONDON – The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II began a carefully choreographed 500-mile journey to its final resting place Sunday, moving from Balmoral Castle through the crowded streets of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, where it will remain until it is flown to London ahead of the funeral Sept. 19.

And while Britain was mostly consumed by mourning and ceremony, some were missing their soccer matches, normal television programming

In Edinburgh, throngs of people pressed up against metal police barricades along the route of her black Mercedes hearse to pay their respects to the queen.

Elsewhere, stacks of floral tributes lined the gates of Buckingham Palace in London and other royal sites.

But after the initial shock, scenes of national mourning – the Queen’s face looms out from memorial signs in every town; BBC’s presenters are wearing black – coexist now with the normalcy of everyday as the Royal Family and its large apparatus called the “company” seek to orchestrate a transition of power for a public very different than the one Elizabeth faced 70 years ago.

“I think especially for the older generation, she’s been such a constant in all of our lifetimes that we’ve always known the queen being there,” said Chloe Young, 21, a master’s degree student in Edinburgh. “So it feels very odd to know we have a king now instead of a queen. It feels like a massive change.”

Also capturing the public’s attention Sunday were William and Catherine, the new Prince and Princess of Wales, who greeted mourners at Windsor Castle alongside Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The appearance fueled speculation that the two brothers might reconcile after their reported estrangement last year when the latter couple stepped back from royal duties.

President Biden, speaking Sunday at the 9/11 memorial service at the Pentagon, recalled a message Queen Elizabeth sent after the deadly attacks. “Her ambassador read a prayer service to St. Thomas Church in New York, where she poignantly reminded us, quote, grief is the price we pay for love,” he said.

On Monday, King Charles III and his wife, Queen Consort Camilla, will lead a procession with guns firing down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to a service at St. Giles’ Cathedral, which dates back to the middle ages. Thousands are expected to file past the queen’s coffin in the coming days.

King Charles, only a few days ago merely Prince Charles, will address the U.K. parliament later Monday.

The British government published guidance on Friday for how businesses and public services could best pay their respects.

“National Mourning is a period of time for reflection in response to the demise of the Sovereign,” it read. “Nevertheless, mourning is very personal and we anticipate individuals, families, communities and organizations may want to mark Her Majesty’s demise in their own way.”

Fortnum & Mason stopped its clock. Premier League soccer games were postponed. Trade unions announced they were calling off planned strikes.

But for the most part, pubs and restaurants are still open – a necessity as British businesses reckon with a growing cost of living crisis.

“It’s sad and everything, but stopping everything? That’s a luxury,” said Al Mohamed, a street cleaner in north London, looking at broken beer bottles on the sidewalk. “Can’t judge people for having fun or paying their respects to her. But someone has to clean it up.”

For some businesses, going dark for the mourning period could mean the difference between survival and closure.

In a letter to the government last month, the British Beer and Pub Association said that mass job losses were inevitable in the absence of help for an industry that employs 940,000 people. “With the pandemic, it’s already been a tough time,” said Dev Maritz, 39, behind the bar at the red-and-white tiled Thornhill Arms. “I don’t think the owner has thought about closing.”

Bar staff in several pubs said that the cancellation of Premier League soccer matches had affected customer traffic but that new patrons have also joined regulars at the bar to raise a glass to the late queen.

“I think people also wanted to come in to celebrate together,” Maritz said. “We need to carry on, we need to keep making money, but while we celebrate her life.”

Some cancellations, including soccer games and the annual Proms concert, have been criticized for eliminating opportunities for communal remembrance.

“In many cases, it isn’t the monarchy or its government that’s canceled these things. The BBC, Premier League, and other businesses and organisations have taken the decision,” the New Statesman reported. “Possibly this is because they think it is right; sometimes, though, it’s surely because they are afraid of the consequences of not canceling.”

Some have noted with discomfort that regular news coverage and television programming has been eclipsed by wall-to-wall updates on King Charles III’s accession.

Stories about the war in Ukraine reaching a critical new phase, or about floodwaters leaving a third of Pakistan’s habitable land underwater, are far from the headlines.

The BBC and ITV have canceled some of their flagship programming in favor of news and analysis about the royal transition. Apple News’s algorithm is turning up a solid stream of stories about what comes next.

Scanning the newspapers at his local supermarket, Pat Simmons, a former postman, was skeptical: “Nothing else happening, eh?” he called to the cashier with a wry smile. “It’s like we’ve been removed from the world for a few days.”

For the publicly-funded broadcaster, the BBC, the death of the queen has left news executives with a tricky balancing act. “It needs to act as the national broadcaster and commemorate the Queen, while also ensuring it doesn’t overwhelm audiences so much they switch off altogether,” wrote media reporter Jim Waterson last week in the Guardian.

When the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, died last year, the BBC had to remove an online form for reader feedback, after wall-to-wall coverage again replaced usual programming, resulting in a surge of complaints.

The adulation surrounding the queen’s legacy has also prompted discomfort among Britons who fear that the fanfare could drown out any collective reflection on how the nation’s colonial history has shaped the world.

“Bombarding us with hours of repetitive rolling content that breezes past the colonial legacy of Queen Elizabeth’s reign is counterproductive and unnecessary,” online and print magazine gal-dem wrote on its Twitter account.

In the days following the queen’s death, activists and politicians from former colonies in the Caribbean have renewed calls to remove the monarch as their head of state and for Britain to pay slavery reparations. On Sunday, the hashtag #notmyking was trending on Twitter.

“Respect, decorum and questioning are not incompatible,” wrote columnist Kenan Malik in the Observer newspaper. “Interrogation isn’t an expression of anti-Britishness. There is more than one way of wanting the best for this country.”

The former British colonies of India, Pakistan and Australia announced a day of mourning for Monday.

But the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda told ITV News on Saturday that within three years he will hold a referendum on whether to break with the British monarch, who formally remains head of state of the Caribbean nation. The former English colony is one of 14 nations to still have this status outside of Britain.

“It does not represent any form of disrespect to the monarch,” Prime Minister Gaston Browne said. “This is not an act of hostility. . . It is a final step to complete the circle of independence to become a truly sovereign nation.”