The Choreography of Public Mourning

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has been remarkable for many things: The outpouring of love and affection from her citizens and across the globe; the 20-hour, through-the-night queue to shuffle slowly past her coffin as it lay in state; the virtual cessation in Britain of reporting on any other news.

But there has been another remarkable feature of the last 10 days, culminating in Monday’s funeral: the choreography.

From the moment a palace official placed a discrete death notice with precision on the railings of Buckingham Palace to the Lord Chamberlain breaking his wand of office over the coffin in the final moments of the interment ceremony on Monday afternoon, every public event around the queen’s death has unfolded with an astonishing amount of formal, choreographed movement.

The funeral has been planned for decades, and regularly rehearsed by the military contingents who take part. A smooth unrolling of procedures and, of course, some pomp and ceremony, seemed perfectly predictable.

The coffin carried in the state hearse toward Windsor Castle.Credit…Pool photo by Wpa
Credit…Pool photo by Wpa

But it was striking how much the ceremonial ritual leading up to and including the funeral brought to mind an elaborate ballet — the kind with gorgeous, impractical costumes full of gilt and brocade, breeches, cockades and helmets (some with swan plumes!).

Like the classic 19th-century ballets that display massed ranks of identically costumed, identically moving dancers, the rituals have shown us many military units from Britain and the Commonwealth moving with the kind of as-one-being synchronicity that is the dream of ballet directors the world over.

The sense of formalized choreography began at the vigil over the queen’s body, which was brought on Wednesday to lie in state for several days at Westminster Hall. As the guards took up their positions around the catafalque on which the coffin lay, they stood with one foot forward, hands placed precisely on a staff, heads bent down at the same angle.

Prince William, left, and Harry, Duke of Sussex, at the queen’s funeral procession.Credit…Jenny Goodall/Pool via Reuters
Credit…Pool photo by Gareth Cattermole

When the Queen’s four children came to stand vigil, they waited for three loud strikes of a staff on the ground, then marched in perfect diamond formation toward the catafalque before taking up positions around it. Three more taps, and they stepped up to the coffin in unison. Another three strikes, and they turned outward to the public folding their hands before them and bowing their heads.

It was astonishingly polished, like well-rehearsed dancers who instinctively fall into step with one another.

Then came the funeral. The whip-sharp turns of entire military units, moving from front to side as a command rang out; the tiny, calibrated steps of the 142 naval ratings (as the men are called) as they moved in from each side around the coffin, elevated on the gun carriage; the way the two men leading the Bearers of the Queen’s Company removed a guard rail and carefully lifted the royal standard cloth with perfectly coordinated gestures; a choreography of the mundane elevated to solemn ritual.

Members of the Royal Navy who pulled the gun carriage that carried the coffin.Credit…Pool photo by Markus Schreiber

And then there were the eight bearers — the brilliant soloists of the pageant. Several times during the ceremony they had to lift the draped coffin — with a wreath of flowers, a jeweled orb and the state crown perched on top — carry it and then place it down, on the gun carriage, the catafalque and, finally, into the royal hearse.

Each time, they had to face the coffin, lifting it with two hands and betraying no strain (just like dancers), then on command, raise it high into the air, before turning sharply inward so that it rested on their shoulders. After a number of steps forward, they turned again as one to the side and seamlessly conveyed the coffin onto the carriage or the catafalque with nary a bump or tremor.

Between these ritualized moments were marches — first a short one from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, where the funeral took place, then a longer march after the ceremony to Wellington Arch, involving thousands of military personnel on foot and on horseback, as well as the queen’s family and household. All (even the horses) moved in perfect unison at 75 steps a minute, to music played by a band that also moved in perfect unison, even when rounding corners and going through gates and arches.

Funeral formations: the Coldstream Guards on Monday.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Reuters
And the household staff of Buckingham Palace.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Reuters
The State Gun Carriage of the Royal Navy.Credit…Pool photo by Chip Somodevilla

Like a huge corps de ballet, individuals disappeared into geometric patterns as their lines fanned out and came back together, and like dancers responding to the music, they seemed to stop and start their movement through an invisible connection to one other.

But the ceremony wasn’t just notable for the remarkable precision and timing of its participants. It was also notable for its use of stillness and silence; the absolute immobility required at various points from the thousands of troops, and from the members of the royal family marching behind the coffin. The intentional discipline of these moments, before the dramatic striking of a staff, the command of an officer or the start of “God Save the King,” were as theatrical and emotionally powerful as any great stage performance.

Movement has meaning. But just as we may not understand the gestural intention of a dancer’s mime in a ballet, we don’t have to comprehend the meanings of every formalized twirl of a baton, reversal of a rifle, or hierarchy of a formation to feel the comforting accrual of tradition and history that inform them.

In these ceremonies and rituals there was an elaborate, physically specific choreography of mourning that embodied both loss and permanence, sadness and the reassurance of continuity. It was, as a television commentator put it, “the noble pageantry of death.”

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