A Private Grief in Public and the Universality of Human Experience

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Going viral is, I would imagine, a standard goal of most professional photographers. A brief glance at his Twitter feed suggests that this happens fairly frequently to Jonathan Brady, a British photojournalist for the Press Association. Well, it happened again recently and it’s obvious why. For it is Brady who gets the credit for what had to be the image of an extraordinary week in an extraordinary season: the Queen sitting alone at the funeral of Prince Philip.

It is one of those pictures that doesn’t merely capture a unique moment but somehow manages to communicate meaning at many different levels simultaneously. If it weren’t such a sombre occasion, it would be serendipitous. In case you’re anxious, my purpose here is not to wax lyrical about the advantages of constitutional monarchy over other forms such as executive presidencies, say. That would be entirely superfluous because they’re completely and utterly obvious to all the world. Instead, my aim is to meander through what makes the image itself so powerful.

Now, before I get uncharacteristically overcharged (for a stuffed-shirted Englishman, that is), just consider the technical prowess of the photograph’s composition. This will have been partly achieved through cropping during the editing process undoubtedly, but the ingredients all had to be in place to make that possible. We’re in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, the castle’s private chapel. It is a stunning medieval masterpiece, so it would take a perverse kind of genius to make it anything other than photogenic! So Brady has that advantage at least. But consider the lines in his image.

  • Start with the unmissable diagonals, formed by the parallel lines of the pews and memorial wall plaques. If you extend them, they would eventually converge in the far distance, just as in an Old Master landscape that has thoroughly mastered perspective. One of Claude Lorrain’s classical scenes, perhaps. But note where these lines draw the eye. Not at some invisible point in infinity, but at their widest point on the left; we are quite naturally drawn back to the lone figure in the pews.
  • Or take the rule-of-thirds, one of the basic techniques for image composition, in painting, photography and cinema. Apply lines at a third and two-thirds of the way along the vertical and horizontal axes and the image is divided into nine segments (as in tic-tac-toe, or noughts-and-crosses as we call it over here). Lo and behold, the photo’s subject fits perfectly into one of those segments.
  • Finally, throw in central lines to both axes and what do you find? The top of the figure’s mask and the tip of her nose lie on that horizontal line precisely. That is entirely apt since when chatting with a friend, we naturally focus on the centre of their face. Even though in this instance she is looking into the middle distance, the fact of the centre of her face falling on the central line gives the viewer an unconscious connection.

Now, of course, this is all very clinical. Because this is not just any lone figure in any old building. It’s the Queen! Sitting alone at the funeral of her husband of 74 years, just two months before his 100th birthday and days before her own 95th. For all the incongruities and occasional absurdities of monarchies in the twenty-first century, despite the vast wealth, heritage and privileges that it has brought the Windsor family—incidentally, that’s an artificial name created during World War I because their true surname, inherited from Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert, should be Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—this is a painful, and indeed very human, scene. Even the most ardent republicans (lower case ‘r’!) can look beyond all the flummery and baggage to see that. It is profoundly poignant. Stories about Prince Philip have abounded in recent days, things that few knew and most had no right to know. He could be controversial at times, some of his views might leave something to be desired, while addicts of Netflix’s The Crown might presume confidence about all kinds of biographical details. (Never forget it’s fictionalised!) But of the many remarkable things about the Duke of Edinburgh, it was his unwavering commitment to duty and service that stood out. Which meant, in particular, serving his wife, often a couple of paces behind her. For seven and half decades. It takes a man of rare calibre and security (still) to handle that. No wonder she called him her ‘strength and stay’. And now she’s alone, an aloneness that only the widowed truly know. Yet for the Queen it brings a unique burden because if you think about it, she has never known what it is to be the monarch without her husband beside her. They had been married for five years already when her father George VI died.

The camera does lie, as we all should know. I admit to a degree of outrage that she should be left all alone like this at such a painful moment, assuming that it was the result of Covid-distancing rules. In actual fact, Brady froze her total isolation in those pews from just a passing moment; they would fill up (albeit with necessary spaces) within minutes. But you would never know that from the photo.

Despite that—or perhaps even because of that—this viral image communicated a profoundly relatable truth. Yes—she really is alone now, humanly speaking. At least two British newspaper cartoonists (Peter Brookes in The Times and Christian Adams in the Evening Standard) sought to convey the same thought (see below). But Brady’s photograph makes the point far more persuasively. It requires no captions nor additional images.

She must have sat in that chapel thousands of times over her long life. Moreover, this was hardly the first time she’d had to wear funeral black from head to toe there. But it was certainly the first to do so in that universal icon of the pandemic, a face mask. This is by no means the first pandemic of human history. Yet it is the first in which the whole of humanity has battled the virus, (often defeating it, but too often being defeated by it), while simultaneously being kept informed about that battle. Various sites provide minute-by-minute statistical updates of the global state of play. We can each now doom-scroll to our heart’s discontent. All seven billion of us have been affected by COVID-19, and many of us have lost loved ones and precious friends to that contemptible microbe. Prince Philip was not killed by COVID, of course; but his final months were surely dominated by its presence. So at his funeral, attendance was restricted to only thirty close family while his beloved wife sat masked. And distanced.

There is a cruel irony about that. Many commentators have observed that for constitutional monarchy to ‘work,’ it requires an indefinable brew of magic and mystery, particularly around the monarch herself. She must be politically neutral, for example (which is why she never gives interviews). How else can she represent everybody? She needs to be unlike the rest of us, in some ways; there needs to be that degree of distance from us ordinary citizens on the street (and by the way, we are citizens now, not ‘subjects’!). So, the less we know, the more effective the system, something which makes life for the monarchy increasingly fraught in the era of 24/7 news cycles. The media have reduced, and at times eroded, that distance altogether. The ensuing scenes are not always pretty.

This will no doubt seem very alien to observers in the States and elsewhere. A quirky legacy of history, perhaps, only good to keep tourism and tabloids in business. But I found myself profoundly moved, perhaps unexpectedly.

So here is the strangest thing, made all the stranger for it being conveyed through one of the most extraordinary and unique people in history: in art as in life, the more specific and personal an experience might be, the more universally it resonates.

Mark Meynell

I love my country as I hope you do yours. Yet living for a few years as a child in Asia, working in East Africa between 2001 and 2005, and now having a travelling job focused primarily in Eastern Europe, radically affects my perspectives. One is that I simply cannot be a nationalist. Not as a Christian, not as a modern citizen. That just makes no sense to me. I grew to appreciate and love the UK while being abroad; to that extent, I guess you could say I’m a patriot. But I also grew to love many other places and people too, because it was obvious to me that while they had characteristics, habits and traditions that were different from ours certainly, some were far better! As George Bernard Shaw brilliantly put it, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it…”

So even if my feelings surrounding this image were somehow shaped by patriotism, that did not lie at the heart of it. Because, for me as a pastor, I couldn’t help but see beyond the titles and splendour, the history and the scandals. For as Jonathan Brady’s photograph showed us, here was a person experiencing realities that every single one of us must face. We witnessed a monarch who was truly one of us. She sits slightly hunched, subdued and sombre, and perhaps a little scared (just as C. S. Lewis articulated in A Grief Observed). We can barely see her eyes; they’re like dark pinpricks, staring ahead at nothing in particular, staring into a Philip-less future. It is so sad. And human.

So here is the strangest thing, made all the stranger for it being conveyed through one of the most extraordinary and unique people in history: in art as in life, the more specific and personal an experience might be, the more universally it resonates. Conversely, the more generalities we grope for in the hope of building bridges with the many, the fewer connections we actually make. Such generalities leave us cold. It is precisely the uniqueness of another’s experience that makes it so precious. And universal. For here is grief.

But I can’t leave it there. Both the Queen and Prince Philip shared a profound faith in Christ. This funeral, for all its pain and sadness, therefore, does not constitute an eternal farewell, but a hope-filled Au Revoir (French for ‘until the next time’). So, let us close with the weighty words of a clerical poet, one who himself knew the mixed blessing of being favoured by one of Elizabeth II’s ancestors: John Donne, pressed into ordination by James I (aka James VI of Scotland). Because of Christ, we can all know this to be true as well.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

—John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud”

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