During the private funeral of her husband, Queen Elizabeth II sat alone near the St. George’s Chapel altar, socially distanced from her family and wearing a black pandemic mask.
This searing portrait of grief moved viewers worldwide. And as Prince Philip’s casket was lowered into the Windsor Castle vault, singers chanted the Kontakion of the Departed, a tie to his Orthodox roots in Greece.
“Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints,” they sang, “where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting. ... All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Only 18 months later, Queen Elizabeth requested the same chant in the same chapel. This time it marked the start of the committal liturgy which closed a 10-day wave of statecraft, vigils, memorials and processions preceding the majestic state funeral.
The queen’s final, intimate Windsor Castle service began where her husband’s had ended, as if one rite was flowing into another.
“Queen Elizabeth was one of those people in this mortal life who always thought ahead,” said David Lyle Jeffrey, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. When preparing these rites, the queen was “clearly looking for prayers, scriptures and hymns that made connections she wanted to make for her family, her people and the world. ... I think she succeeded brilliantly.”
An Anglican from Canada, Jeffrey said the events closing the queen’s historic 70-year reign were an appropriate time to explore the “essence of her admirable Christian character.” Thus, the retired literature professor wrote a poem after her death — “Regina Exemplaris (An exemplary queen)” — saluting her steady, consistent faith. It ended with:
“... She who longest wore the heavy crown/ Knew but to kneel before the unseen throne/ And plead her people’s cause as for her own,/ And there to praise the Lord of All, bowed down,/ More conscious of his glory than her high acclaim,/ Exemplar thus in worship, in praise more worthy of the Name.”
After the Kontakion of the Departed, Bishop David Conner, the dean of St. George’s Chapel, noted the importance of this sanctuary to Queen Elizabeth. She had worshipped in the Windsor Castle chapel as a girl, sometimes singing in the choir and taking piano lessons with organist Sir William Henry Harris. The queen included some of his music in the committal service.
“We are bound to call to mind,” said Conner, “someone whose uncomplicated, yet profound Christian faith bore so much fruit ... in a life of unstinting service to the nation, the Commonwealth and the wider world, but also, and especially to be remembered in this place, in kindness, concern and reassuring care for her family, friends and neighbors.
“In the midst of our rapidly changing and frequently troubled world, her calm and dignified presence has given us confidence to face the future as she did, with courage and with hope. ... We pray that God will give us grace to honor her memory by following her example and that with our sister Elizabeth, at the last, we shall know the joys of life eternal.”
The committal service also included verses from the Book of Revelation read during the 1952 funeral of the queen’s father, King George VI. This reading included these familiar words: “I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. ... And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
Out of the many texts selected for these funerals — from the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and other classics — Jeffrey was struck by the end of the famous hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” by Charles Wesley.
“She chose this text with exquisite literary and spiritual sensitivity,” he said, “knowing the power of these words — especially the ‘crown’ image — when heard during a queen’s funeral.” The hymn’s final lines proclaim:
“Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before Thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.”