The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The royal funeral was a reminder of the value of rituals

A military hat rests on the coffin of Prince Philip as it is transported by hearse, a specially modified Land Rover, during his funeral. (Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters)

As the pallbearers carried the coffin of Prince Philip from Windsor Castle to the waiting Land Rover for the short drive to St. George’s Chapel, one could hear the sound of their footsteps on the gravel. A distinct, rhythmic crunch of eight men moving in perfect unison across the unruly gray stones. It was a small thing — one of countless small acts, tiny gestures and solitary moments that added up to a display of the humanizing and forgiving power of rituals.

Prince Philip, 99, was laid to rest in a ceremonial funeral Saturday on the grounds of Windsor Castle. By royal standards, it was a modest affair — something that Philip desired and covid precautions demanded. There were only 30 guests allowed and there was no congregational singing. The streets were not teeming with throngs of onlookers. But it was still an extraordinary display of military might, historical sweep, national symbolism and religious piety.

It was not an emotional service — at least not for those who stand outside of the royal circle looking in, those for whom Philip wasn’t a father or grandfather, or husband of 73 years. The funeral was austere and stately and just a little bit sad, which is how one might describe the royal family itself.

Philip has been publicly hailed for his loyalty to his wife Queen Elizabeth II, for his dedication to his country and for his decades of service. At the same time, his sometimes racially insensitive comments have been downplayed as mere gaffes or as examples of his charming willingness to allow political incorrectness to break the ice. He has stood up for a monarchy that has stood for colonialism. He has been an emblem of the kind of privilege that is bestowed rather than earned — a man who sat atop a caste system and called it his duty. He was an individual who was a cog in the royal machinery. He was beloved. He was complicated.

Rituals simplify the complex. They tell the troubled Prince Andrew — friend to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — where to stand and what to wear and how to be, if only for a few hours. They divert attention from the brotherly rift between Prince William and Prince Harry. They bring order to chaos. They tell everyone that now is the time to look around at the majesty and grandeur and acknowledge the smallness of the individual — even the queen’s consort — in the breadth of history.

The funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

As the coffin departed Windsor Castle, representatives of the military and members of the royal household staff stood in formation on the grounds under a sunny sky. Their shadows echoed their perfect positioning and served as austere reminders of how many people could not be present, how each individual represented, perhaps, multitudes.

When the coffin arrived at St. George’s Chapel, it was greeted with a minute of silence. The pallbearers conveyed it up the stone steps. It was draped with Prince Philip’s family flag, which expressed his Greek lineage among other aspects of his history, and was topped with flowers as well as his naval cap and sword. The men carried his coffin without disturbing these things. The only indication of their effort was the slight slippage of a black face mask below the nose of one of the men.

There is calming reassurance in a procession like that. One’s mortal journey ends on the strong shoulders of others who will bear you along.

The men moved so slowly up the steps, their footfalls were clear in the quiet. The family filed in and sat apart in their nuclear units, which meant that the queen sat alone. The symbol of an entire nation was a solitary figure dressed in black rather than her usual sprightly pastels. She wore a black hat and a black face mask rimmed in white. Her gray hair peeked from beneath the brim of her millinery.

British ceremonies — weddings, funerals, royal anniversaries — are particularly grand. They speak of history, stature and continuity. And embedded within them are all the reminders of how Britain’s might came to be and the human cost of the monarchy. But on Saturday, amid the bugles and the bagpiper and the cannon fire, the rituals also made a small space for a complicated man and his dutiful wife.

The newest rituals with which we all must now contend are those brought on by the spread of covid-19, which requires that we stand alone and apart on those occasions when we most want to be with others. And so, in all of her customary stoicism, the queen endured, but in a way that so many across the world have already done.

If rituals remind us of how small we are in the scope of history, they can also reassure us that despite all evidence to the contrary, none of us is alone.

So many people have been missing the reassuring powers of rituals these past 13 months — especially the spiritual ones. They have not been able to attend religious services, and when they have, they’ve been reconfigured for safety. Perhaps they’ve been held outdoors. Communion has been transformed into a drive-through event. It has been impossible to extend the hand of fellowship, and there have been so few people in attendance that it hasn’t felt like fellowship at all.

And so Philip’s funeral was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.