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Why the Queen’s funeral was extraordinary and yet familiar

Most of us watched at least part of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and would have found the whole day both extraordinary and, at times intensely familiar. While her service, or indeed services, were remarkable, the rituals which surrounded the day and certain parts of the service weren’t unusual to us as funeral directors and probably to you as well.

We have written a lot in the past about the rituals surrounding funerals. When we are sad and grieving, these rituals become even more vital. During the week leading up to the funeral and on the day itself, the media interviewed many members of the public who were very obviously moved at seeing the Queen’s coffin, whether lying in state or being transported through the streets. Often people said that it hadn’t seemed real until they’d seen the coffin – and we hear our families say that too.

During the service from Windsor, the BBC presenter Kirsty Young said: “Here we see the ritualising of grief – which helps us to make sense of a very difficult situation.”

Rituals are part of life, they make us feel ‘safe’ and give us routine, something to focus on and some comfort when we are grieving. There were many aspects of the Queen’s funeral which were actually very similar to anyone else’s service – such as the carrying of the coffin into the building and it being placed at the front during the service, the familiar hymns and readings. Even non-faith services include some of these rituals.

A funeral can help the people grieving feel that they are not alone and it gives the life of the person who has died ‘worth’. How often have you attended a funeral and said to somebody afterwards, ‘there were so many people there’ or how lovely it was to see an old neighbour or friend after so many years.

Certainly the Royal family saw how much the Queen meant to the country and its people and that will have, no doubt, given them some comfort.

While we have our rituals surrounding death, every single culture across the world has their own particular rituals and gathering of communities after a death. It is central to our cultural practices.

Rituals are part of life and there are some we all observe. You might always have a birthday cake, have particular things you do as a family on Christmas Day or somewhere you pop in to pick up a coffee on the way to work each day.

Funerals have many rituals – whether it’s the way the coffin is brought to the chapel or simply the way everyone sits or stands at the same time. There are ways we behave at that time which are part of the ‘ritual’. Psychologists believe that these rituals help us in times of ‘chaos and disorder’.

While the Queen’s coffin had very particular things on top of it which represented her – such as the Royal Standard, the orb and spectre and her crown, our families often request items to be placed on their loved ones coffin, in addition to flowers. It’s not unusual, for instance, to have a football flag on a coffin or something which represents them, such as their cap.

The flowers on the Queen’s coffin were very special to her – blooms she loved, picked from gardens she knew. Our families will often select flowers based on particular flowers - or colours – their loved one liked.

We saw the Queen’s close family following her coffin. Again, that’s something which often happens within services we look after for our families – although typically on a smaller scale.

Also, while the Queen had three different services during the day, it’s not unusual for our families to perhaps have a church service, followed by a burial or a comital at the crematorium. There might be another service a little while later, such as an ashes interment.

Everyone attending the Queen’s funeral had an order of service, which included the readings and hymns. Again, this is something which the majority of our families request and it’s likely that people take these away and look at them later over a cup of tea and, indeed, keep safely afterwards.

Academic Jonathan Jong said: “Despite this wide diversity of practice, it seems our death rituals serve the same psychological functions: to make us feel less helpless in the face of our sorrow and terror.”

Embracing the rituals associated with a funeral and of a death itself are an important way of saying goodbye to the person you love and begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

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