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Opinion: When mourning for Queen Elizabeth is more personal than public

Her biographies are tucked in the corners of bookstores, London’s trains and planes aren’t packed — but that doesn’t mean we aren’t mourning

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A hearse carrying Queen Elizabeth II’s casket is escorted by Grenadier Guards.

Grenadier Guards escort the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, aboard the State Hearse, as it arrives for thecCommittal service for the queen inside Windsor Castle, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Glyn Kirk, Pool Photo via Associated Press

In April, when I was invited to give a lecture at Cambridge University, I had no idea that London would be the epicenter of the world on the second weekend in September. In the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sept. 8, media and social media blanketed the air and ether-waves with wall-to-wall coverage of Elizabeth’s passing. I was not prepared for what I found during my brief visit to London, a credit to the people of the United Kingdom.  

My first surprise took place on the way to London, on Tuesday, Sept. 12. With all of the news coverage of the 10 days of mourning, I thought for certain the entire world would converge on London. Instead, there were 67 empty seats on the plane.   

I arrived bleary-eyed on Wednesday afternoon and went straight to my hotel to sleep. The temptation to go to Westminster Hall, where the queen’s casket would lie in state, was strong, but jet lag got the best of me, and I needed to be ready to give my lecture.   

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to stop by a Waterstone’s bookstore in Bloomsbury prior to catching a train to Cambridge. I expected to find a massive display of books about the queen and the royal family. Instead, I was directed to the basement where a small corner table held several books about Elizabeth II.  

Surprised, I went upstairs and asked the salesman and saleswoman why this was. Nearly as soon as Elizabeth had died, a bookseller in the United States had already stuffed my inbox with a selection of biographies I could purchase.  

“It’s sort of a matter of respect,” the young woman explained to me. “We don’t want to be seen as trying to profit off of their misfortune,” her fellow salesman added.  

I was impressed. This had nothing to do with “post-colonial” critiques of the royal family. In every bookstore I visited during my trip (and college professors will visit every one!) I found the same thing. You practically had to ask where the biographies were located if you wanted to buy one.   

With my lecture over on Friday, I boarded a train back to London. The warnings had sounded throughout the United Kingdom and even across the Atlantic Ocean: stay away from London, it’s going to be “full” for the first time in history.   

Only three of the eight cars on the Thames Line train to London’s King’s Cross Station were more than 50% occupied.  

While there were modest tributes to the queen at Guild Halls and churches, people went about their normal business. They offered their respects quietly, without great fanfare.  

I stayed over on Saturday so that I could complete some research at the National Archives in the London suburb of Kew. It took a lot of discipline to focus on the topic of airlines and airports in Asia, knowing that a historic event was taking place not too far from where I was with thousands waiting in line to pay their respects to the queen.  

But, following the example of the queen, I held to the work at hand.  

On the way out of the archive, I expressed regret to one of the employees that I had not had a chance to view the queen’s lying in state.  

I went downstairs to leave. In the grand entrance to the National Archives sat a lady writing in a big book. I noticed the sign that invited visitors to the archive to register their condolences to the queen. The table was draped in a white cloth. There was a stately portrait of the Elizabeth flanked by two vases filled with lilies.  

It hit me in an instant that were was my chance to queue — in Kew — for the queen.  

I pulled up a chair and wrote the following:  

Dear Queen Elizabeth II,  

I am only just learning about your life of duty and service. Hearing about your example has made me want to fulfill my duty rather than seek accolades and preferments. I am going to be reading your biographies and your diaries so that I can teach my students about your legacy. I wish I had the chance to queue at Westminster, but I had to work as a historian in the National Archives (where I am writing this) rather than be a witness to history. 

I had little more to say, but was grateful, as like the vast majority of Britons and well-wishers around the world, for some way of conveying gratitude for a life well-lived that did not involve traveling to the heart of London.  

I take solace in the fact that most Britons paid their own respects in dignified, quiet ways as well. They mourn with dignity and a quiet respect for the Royal Family. 

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.