Why We Watched the Queen’s Funeral (Even Though We Hate Monarchy)
Chip Somodevilla, Procession of the casket of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo courtesy of Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The latest installment of the January 6th Congressional hearings, detailing the ways a murderous band of insurgents incited by the president attempted to subvert democracy, block election ratification, and hang the vice president, reminded us of three things: (1) Democracy is more fragile than we thought, (2) decency comes in both blue and red, and (3), so far we’re still, if barely, a civil and functioning democracy. (Consider the calm politeness of the discourse we saw, on video aired October 14th, among members of Congress hiding at Fort McNair. The most violent comment, made under siege by rampaging “patriots” bent on murder, was Nancy Pelosi’s declaration that she wanted to punch Donald Trump.)
Alexandra Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer (l.) and Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (r.),
still from video of the January 6th insurrection, 2020. Video courtesy of the New York Times
The upcoming midterm elections will reveal how many voters want to right the ship. (I predict that at least a slim majority will.) Despite our commitment to democracy, though, last month millions of Americans were riveted by Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, a display of arcane protocol, royal wealth, and family entitlement like none we’d ever seen.
Here’s why, I think, and it has nothing to do with wanting a monarch. A funeral is a ritual and ritual is like art. We need it; it speaks to our imaginations. It is a way to think and feel simultaneously. Ritual is performance in real time that is also about time. More like performance art than theater, ritual is often slow and boring. There’s no plot. There may be costumes but there aren’t roles, exactly. In a ritual, people play themselves.
Let’s say that ritual is art-adjacent. Maybe it’s the expressive form we need most now, one that offers us rare permission to slow down and pay attention. Ritual is unifying and time-consuming. More than that, there’s something dangerous about it, this bare feeling of joining with others — people with whom we may not otherwise agree — while at the same time standing alone with our thoughts. In this respect, ritual is the opposite of theater. You can’t lose yourself in the story, not for a minute.
The Queen of England died last month, and Americans flocked to their screens to watch at least some of the entire funeral, those long passages of slow walking in big hats through the streets of London. I kept wondering what these people (me, for instance) were getting from this, certainly not a queen or king. Right now, we face crucial elections, the results of which can buttress our shaky democracy or topple it. We disagree bitterly about which side should win. But, as contentious as this process is, most of us agree the last thing we want is some ruler who gets into power and stays until death, even if, like QE II, she’s not in charge of the government and is the most decent, reasonable, and apolitical person in the country.
So, why did so many Americans, the most individualist and monarchy-hating society on earth, follow her funeral so closely?
Maybe we needed something to agree on, and what’s more leveling than death? The people standing on the curb as the cortege passed weren’t just watching passively. Their presence made them part of it. So were the people in train stations and airports who stopped to observe two minutes of silence. I would argue that even those in this country who got up before dawn to watch the funeral in real time were part of the ritual. We were thinking of our own dead.
The best rituals take place around indisputables — birth, the change of seasons, death. Funerals are the most essential of these. They make us face the unfathomable and give us a formal occasion on which to do so. The queen’s funeral was the world coming together to take a pause in our routines in order to think about death. The spectacle of bearskin hats and military uniforms and timed marching by bereaved family members walking for miles in synchrony, the muffled drums and the tolling of bells, also muffled in sackcloth, was extra. The soap opera, familiar participants with messy lives, petty disputes, personal disappointments, was extra. There was a body in that box; the act of transporting it to its grave transcended all.
Performance art is not the same as ritual, but it often uses the same potent and primal elements: repetition, the power of prolonged “awkward silence,” a refusal to explain. In both, the audience may be a participant. Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” provided an active meditation on the boundaries of a woman’s body. The viewer was invited to be the assaulter, challenged to make his or her own decisions about how far to go, how close to the skin to cut. Rituals can involve pain. The Cherokee Sun Dance, as described by Diane Glancy in her essay, “Sun Dance,” involves ritual piercing of men’s skin to achieve an elevated level of spiritual enlightenment. People travel from far away to watch.
We don’t always love ritual at first, but enjoyment is not the point. Monotony is part of it, so is repetition. It can take years, in the case of annual observances, for the magic to take hold. As a child I thought parades were ridiculous. If people wanted to walk (or ride giant tricycles) down the middle of the street to mark this or that day, let them, but why was I expected to watch? But that is the point, to slowly consider whatever is being presented — some idea, a landmark event, food about to be eaten.
Yoko One, “Cut Piece,” 1964, performance with body, clothes, and scissors
Diane Glancy, still from video interview with Sheila Tousey and
the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, 2007
The emotional and aesthetic power of ritual can be dangerous when put in the service of a sinister ideology. It can seduce and persuade. Mob psychology is terrifying and real, and beauty is a great persuader. The great thing about the queen’s funeral, the thing people sensed, was that it was not in the service of any ideology. A funeral never is, no matter what institution hosts it or tries to twist its meaning. The final mystery always hangs in the air at the end. Where did she go? One thing’s for sure. She was long gone before that box descended, before the piper played those haunting final notes.
All art is an opportunity for meditation, and ritual gives us heaps of that in slow motion. Watching the queen’s disputatious family together bear her body to its grave offered a catharsis for anyone who’s ever buried someone, which is to say everyone. Monarchy made the opulence and rigid choreography of the event possible, indeed necessary, but the event itself was something we all understood. Ever notice how funerals put everything into perspective?