By Sean Coughlan:
Heads of state, dignitaries and local community heroes, side by side on a once-in-a-lifetime guest list, suddenly stood up to attention together. The significance of the moment was almost audible. The chatter, the WhatsApps, texts and Tweets from the crowded pews stopped in its tracks.
There was a sharp intake of breath as people were watching something that would be remembered all their lives. An era was ending, step by step, right before their eyes, here and now, as the soldiers carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II shuffled up the aisle.
The choir filled the spine-tingling moment.
King Charles stared straight ahead. Maybe one of his medals was for surviving the exhaustion of the past 11 days. He looked like he must be aching for rest, and who could blame him.
“We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we carry nothing out,” sang the choir, sending up their voices into the high gothic arches.
The congregation of the century was gathered for the state funeral. The Royal Family, National Health Service workers, political heavyweights, so many world leaders that they had to be loaded onto buses like schoolchildren on an outing.
United States president Joe Biden had travelled in an armour-plated car called the Beast. Others went in an overcrowded sea of people called the District Line.
President Biden, holding hands with Jill Biden, looked around the abbey before taking a seat at the side. It cannot be often that a US president is not the centre of attention.
Ex-prime ministers were clustered together, nodding awkwardly like Doctor Whos from rival eras.
“Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts,” sang the choir.
The Prince of Wales and Duke of Sussex, William and Harry, were on different sides of the aisle looking sombre – and anyone trying to read the expression of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, or Catherine, Princess of Wales, were faced with the wide brim of their hats.
French president Emmanuel Macron had arrived earlier and stood in the aisle slightly lost, like someone looking for friends at a wedding.
Four candles stood around the coffin. The orb and sceptre glowed. The Imperial State Crown was poking up from behind the spray of flowers. On the top of the crown was a big blue sapphire once worn on a ring by Edward the Confessor more than 900 years ago.
It was an extraordinary spectacle to witness first-hand, the plumed helmets, the convoys of overseas royals, the sea of black mourning clothes, the security whisperers, the bright clerics’ robes and the heralds dressed like a pack of cards.
Even the statues in Poet’s Corner seemed to be craning round to see.
British prime minister Liz Truss looked tense but held steady as she went up for her reading. “Let your heart not be troubled.”
The congregation stood up to sing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. It is one of those hymns that lulls one into its sadness. Voices begin to catch. “Though I walk through death’s dark vale, yet will I fear none ill.”
You could feel the static in the air.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, had the impossible task of doing justice to the longest reign in British history. He spoke straight to the point. A woman of deep faith had gone to her final rest in the firm conviction of her beliefs. She had every expectation that we would “meet again”.
But at the centre of everything here was the Queen’s coffin and her mourning family, an inescapable message of what had happened. This was a moment to say goodbye.
A trumpet played the ‘Last Post’. The silence that followed was even louder. This was how things end. In this immense quiet an era was closing. This was our moment of history. Time does not stand still, it never does, whether for a head of state or a nurse on a shift. The New Elizabethan era in which most of us had grown up had finished. The 20th Century boys and girls were now grey-haired parents and grandparents. Everyone has their own story to remember.
A piper played a lament as the Queen was carried slowly towards the Abbey doors, the same doors where she had once stood on her wedding day as a 21-year-old bride. On her coffin was a sprig of myrtle grown from a cutting from her wedding bouquet.
The guests stepped outside, stunned witnesses to something momentous. It was not just that people had said farewell to the Queen, it was the recognition that they had lost part of their own lives.
This was a date to be underlined in a future textbook. A chapter closing. But the area around the Abbey had been sealed tight with security and there were no crowds on the pavement. Those inside were in a new era and outside there was silence.
An era has gone.—BBC