Queen Elizabeth II’s Funeral and the Politics of Public Mourning – Is Mourning Performative? Is it Political?

Joanna Brown

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, the world witnessed an elaborately choreographed memorial service reminiscent of a carefully rehearsed ballet. Military personnel and members of the Queen’s family marched (at a rate of 75 steps per minute, to be exact) from Westminster Hall to the Abbey and then to the Wellington Arch. Military units flanked the coffin, responding to different commands in perfect unison. On command, the coffin bearers lifted, raised high in the air, and returned the coffin back to a carriage or catafalque, all the while solemn faced, “betraying no strain.” Indeed, each second played a role in the ceremony—between moments of complete silence and bombastic renditions of “God Save the King,” of stillness and tiny synchronized movements rippling through the entire procession, one couldn’t help but feel moved, or at a minimum, impressed.[1]  

In fact, the Palace has been planning for the Queen’s death since the moment she became monarch,[2] including a “dress rehearsal” of sorts upon Prince Philip’s passing last year.[3] Coined “Operation London Bridge,” the months following Elizabeth II’s death will involve a meticulously coordinated effort between the government, the Palace, and the media to ease the transition to a new monarch and a new era for the Commonwealth.[4]           

But among the public memorializing of Queen Elizabeth II’s seven-decade long reign come critiques of the monarchy’s role at home and abroad. Calls to abolish the monarchy have grown louder, with hashtags #AbolishTheMonarchy and #NotMyKing trending across social media.[5] Commonwealth Nations are questioning their continued allegiance to a monarch oceans away; not two days after the Queen’s death, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced plans to hold a referendum on becoming a republic within three years.[6] In former British colonies, the Queen’s death serves as an opportunity to reflect on the horrors endured under British rule and to escalate calls for Britain to return pillaged Crown jewels such as the Kohinoor diamond and the Great Star of Africa to India and South Africa, respectively.[7] The monarchy is so central to public discourse that even my American peers debate Charles III’s fitness as a ruler based on our own imagined emotional connections to his first wife, the late Diana Spencer.

The Queen’s funeral thus served as an opportunity to convey the following message:  the monarchy endures, and will continue to do so. On the one hand, from the leagues of military troops to the decorated royal family, the procession displayed a profound level of grandeur, power, and smooth transition to the new monarch.[8] On the other, the process utilized modern technologies to evoke sympathy for the Crown and broadcast the people’s continued devotion to the royal family. In the age of social media, millions went online to express their sympathy [or lack thereof] for the Queen. Twitter broke records with @RoyalFamily being the fourth most globally mentioned handle and over one million Tweets about “queues for the queen.”[9] “Queues for the queen” refers to the approximately 20-hour-long line of mourners waiting to pay homage to the Queen’s coffin as it lay in state.[10] Thus, the subjects, just as much as the royals, became part of the ceremony, showing the rest of the world their undying support. Moreover, this, and every other aspect of the days-long funeral, was televised, providing the world with intimate interviews of grieving pedestrians[11] and fond recollections about the Queen’s unique personality from former members of her cabinet.[12]

Mourning for a monarch was not always such a public affair. Only since Queen Victoria has the public played a role in the funerary events, forming great crowds at the ceremony and attending local church services to express grief and respect.[13] Elizabeth II’s father, George VI’s funeral was the first royal event to be broadcast to the public by television as well as radio.[14] Now, nearly seventy years later, the Queen’s funeral is set to break viewing records, allowing not only Commonwealth citizens, but anyone with a television or streaming service to engage with the commemoration of a late monarch and transition to a new one.[15] Thus, the Palace has a two pronged strategy to mourning:  (1) stressing the importance of tradition, and (2) humanizing the Crown and implicating the public not only as an audience, but as a participant in the elaborate funeral dance. Whether this will be effective in the Crown’s effort to retain public approval and continued power in the 21st century is yet to be seen, but if it proves successful, political bodies striving to retain respect and legitimacy across the pond (like the Supreme Court) may want to take notes.



[1] Roslyn Sulcas, The Choreography of Public Mourning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/19/arts/dance/choreography-queen-funeral.html [https://perma.cc/3UJR-UZ4E] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220923003514/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/19/arts/dance/choreography-queen-funeral.html].  

[2] Megan Specia, Planning for the End of Elizabeth’s Reign Began at the Beginning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 8, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/08/world/europe/london-bridge-what-happens-next-queen.html?searchResultPosition=6 [https://perma.cc/7UVA-FR7X] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220923003650/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/08/world/europe/london-bridge-what-happens-next-queen.html?searchResultPosition=6].

[3] Alan Cowell, Prince Philip’s Funeral Marks the End of an Era for U.K. Royal Family, N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/world/europe/philip-funeral-queen-elizabeth.html [https://perma.cc/RPU9-ZAKK] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220923003929/https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/world/europe/philip-funeral-queen-elizabeth.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/19/arts/dance/choreography-queen-funeral.html].

[4] Specia, supra note 2.

[5] Peter Suciu, Calls to #AbolishTheMonarchy Trending Loudly on Social Media, Forbes (Sept. 9, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2022/09/09/calls-to-abolishthemonarchy-trending-loudly-on-social-media/?sh=6d93af334a0c [https://perma.cc/BUM2-6K3T] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926200646/https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2022/09/09/calls-to-abolishthemonarchy-trending-loudly-on-social-media/?sh=22e8dfc24a0c].

[6] Damien Cave, With Queen Gone, Former Colonies Find a Moment to Rethink Lasting Ties, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/11/world/queen-elizabeth-commonwealth.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-queen-elizabeth&variant=show&region=BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT&block=storyline_flex_guide_recirc [https://perma.cc/D55T-NFMG] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926172411/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/11/world/queen-elizabeth-commonwealth.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-queen-elizabeth&variant=show&region=BELOW_MAIN_CONTENT&block=storyline_flex_guide_recirc].

[7] Rael Ombuor et al., In Former British Colonies, Ghosts of Past Haunt Mourning for Queen, Wash. Post (Sept. 12, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/12/queen-elizabeth-death-africa-colonialism/ [https://perma.cc/RA3G-Q3UF] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926172648/https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/12/queen-elizabeth-death-africa-colonialism/].

[8] Sarah L. Kaufman, The Artful Messaging of the Queen’s Funeral:  The Monarchy Endures, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2022), https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-artful-messaging-of-the-queen-e2-80-99s-funeral-the-monarchy-endures/ar-AA120DMq [https://perma.cc/K4WN-9RSC] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926172740/https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-artful-messaging-of-the-queen-e2-80-99s-funeral-the-monarchy-endures/ar-AA120DMq].

[9] IANS, Twitter Breaks All Records with over 30 mn Tweets on Passing of Queen Elizabeth II, IBT (Sept. 20, 2022), https://www.ibtimes.co.in/twitter-breaks-all-records-over-30-mn-tweets-passing-queen-elizabeth-ii-852449 [https://perma.cc/K44P-F73D] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926172846/https://www.ibtimes.co.in/twitter-breaks-all-records-over-30-mn-tweets-passing-queen-elizabeth-ii-852449].

[10] Sulcas, supra note 1.

[11] Michael Di Iorio, Brits Are Sharing Bonkers Scenes from the UK Following the Announcement of the Queen’s Death, Pedestrian (Sept. 9, 2022), https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/queen-elizabeth-death-wild-scenes-uk/ [https://perma.cc/GJU3-ZGWZ] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926173036/https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/queen-elizabeth-death-wild-scenes-uk/].

[12] Simon Perry, Former Lady-in-Waiting Recalls Queen Elizabeth's Ultimate Act of Kindness:  'Her Goodness Shines', People (Sept. 13, 2022), https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/former-lady-waiting-recalls-queen-203504222.html [https://perma.cc/9KWJ-L72T] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926174050/https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/former-lady-waiting-recalls-queen-203504222.html].

[13] TN Viral Desk, Queen Elizabeth II:  The history of Royal Funerals and how This One Will Be Different, Times Now News (Sept. 17, 2022), https://www.timesnownews.com/viral/queen-elizabeth-ii-the-history-of-royal-funerals-and-how-this-one-will-be-different-article-94265469 [https://perma.cc/6SHK-6CF5] [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926174407/https://www.timesnownews.com/viral/queen-elizabeth-ii-the-history-of-royal-funerals-and-how-this-one-will-be-different-article-94265469].

[14] Id.

[15] Ian Burrell, Queen’s Funeral Set To Break All TV Records, With Broadcasters Gearing up After Decades of Rehearsing, i news (Sept. 18, 2022), https://inews.co.uk/news/media/queen-funeral-tv-records-broadcasters-rehearsing-decades-1863667 [https://web.archive.org/web/20220926174756/https://inews.co.uk/news/media/queen-funeral-tv-records-broadcasters-rehearsing-decades-1863667].