WINDSOR, England — The silence was palpable as the Imperial state crown was removed from Queen Elizabeth II’s casket and placed on the altar of St George’s Chapel – the first time in 70 years that the dazzling symbol of the British monarchy has been separated from the sovereign.
My assignment for a grieving country came down to dissecting what those fleeting seconds meant to this society, from the upper echelons of British nobility to newly arrived migrants hoping to build a better life in a new country.
The 10 days I’ve spent here since Elizabeth’s death have taken me from the opulent interiors of Windsor Castle – the official residence of the Royal Family – to forgotten quarters outside the hustle and bustle of London, the glamorous British capital.
I queued for hours with strangers devoted to the Queen and desperate for a final goodbye. Stood by the thousands in the rain hoping to catch a glimpse of the hearse whizzing toward the imposing gates of Buckingham Palace. I have witnessed countless tears from young and old, from people as far away as South Africa to as close as the English city of Reading.
In the spaces between devoted and apathetic, I have encountered Britons who are ambivalent or undecided about the meaning of the monarchy in their lives – or completely indifferent.
Diaspora communities, whose ancestors suffered the atrocities of British colonialism, still struggle to cope with that legacy. A younger generation of immigrants has not yet reconciled that violent history with their own identity as British. Some have told me they see themselves as ‘Londoners’ – identifying with the hip, cosmopolitan capital – but not as ‘British’, a part of the United Kingdom whose monarch is the head of state.
I’ve also met people who don’t care.
Some planned weekend getaways to keep the crowd from swooning over the late monarch. A relentless barrage of Twitter memes has poked fun at the Queen’s demise.
Still, history weighed heavily in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor on Monday, the day of Elizabeth’s funeral.
The ornate chapel was founded in the 14th century by King Edward III and has been the property of the monarchy for 1,000 years. It has been the scene of many royal events, from funerals to baptisms to royal weddings such as those of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.
Ornate stone craftsmanship draws attention to the elliptical roof, irreplaceable and painstaking woodwork lines the path to the catafalque. Here the chapel chapter clerk told a group of reporters how every step of the service, a more intimate gathering compared to the state funeral at Westminster Abbey, had been carefully plotted by the Queen.
Every hymn was her choice, except the very last.
Removing the crown was an extraordinary moment, the clerk explained. Though steeped in the spectacle of royal grandeur, it embodies a powerful moment of change: going from the head of the sovereign’s coffin to the altar, then returning to the head of a new sovereign – King Charles III – when he is crowned.
Yet the vast majority of the country is unaware of the intimate details of the life of the late monarch they loved – they have watched from a distance all their lives.
“We couldn’t get as close as we wanted to get a good look,” Rachel Mfundiri said, still standing outside the imposing gates of the castle after Elizabeth was buried. She had come to witness history, but now that it was over, she wasn’t sure where to go.
“It’s a little unknown what happens 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 buzzed with tourists until the wee hours. In a bar, a singer dressed in 1930s clothes raised a glass – “to our beautiful queen,” she said, followed by “but I can’t dedicate this next song to her.” As the crowd cheered, she began to sing a George Michael tune.
I found support for the late Queen in unexpected places.
In London’s Central Mosque, an old photo of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, sits alongside bulletins announcing recent events.
The late king had opened the Islamic Cultural Center in 1944, now part of the large mosque complex, in recognition of Muslim efforts in fighting on the side of the British Empire during World War II.
“We have always had strong ties to the monarchy,” said Ayaz Zuberi, a spokesman for the mosque.
Even among Elizabeth’s ardent supporters, it was not possible to generalize their individual reasons in order to pay tribute to her years of service. For many, it was personal: a family member had recently passed away, a deep sense of respect lingered.
Or, in Mili Patel’s case, wanting to show her young daughter the importance of the past.
Patel had folded her lawn chair and walked away from the lawns of the Long Walk, the processional route that led to Windsor Castle. She had come with her daughter Sybill, arrived at 5 a.m. and stayed for 12 hours to see the queen — or at least her coffin — for the last time.
“It will be the last queen in (my daughter’s) generation,” she said. “I wanted her to see it.”
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