We were in Italy when the Queen died. (I will continue my travel blogs next week, but in respect to the Queen’s funeral, I felt I should write something different today.) Messages started to appear on our family online chat, so I was aware that ‘something’ was happening at Balmoral, and we watched BBC news, waiting for the expected announcement. Even though we could access the news online, I wanted to be in England while it was happening. I wanted to hear discussions in the supermarket, and hear announcements and prayers at church, and to share the news with people around me. Instead, we were in Italy, eating in restaurants where people were untouched by the news.
We came home the Sunday after her death. I watched the coffin procession on television, and wondered how it would feel, to follow the coffin of someone you loved while the world watched. Maybe it helps when everyone understands. Maybe it doesn’t.
On Thursday I went to London. I wanted to see the flowers, to be part of history while it unfolded, part of the community. When the train reached Croydon, I began to notice people carrying flowers, the station was full, there was a sense of people who had a purpose. There were more flowers at Victoria Station—a pop-up shop selling bouquets at inflated prices.
I followed the crowds towards the palace, and we were soon directed between barriers, filtering towards Green Park. We passed Buckingham Palace, the flag flying at half-mast, the guards on duty, extra police standing at street corners. There were signs, and toilets, and marshals wearing purple vests who were directing people and answering questions. We walked along the edge of the park, to Wellington Arch (so we had walked two sides of a triangle!) then back into Green Park, to an area cordoned off for flowers.
There were a lot of flowers. There were flowering orchids in pots, and arrangements, and bouquets that had been unwrapped and were lying in lines. Cards and letters were secured on top, damp and smudged, carrying messages from school children and people who had met the Queen and people who had watched her from afar. People were respectful, there was no shouting or laughter, but neither did I see any tears. The atmosphere was peaceful, grandparents showing the flowers to children, young people placing bouquets along the line.
Some people had left candles, others left cuddly toys. Especially Paddington Bear.
To be honest, I find the Paddington Bear messages slightly perturbing. I enjoyed the video clip for the Diamond Jubilee, and I understand that people want the Queen’s death to be peaceful, for her to be in a better place. But it’s like they have replaced angels with a fictitious bear from a storybook. Have we, as Christians, done such a bad job of preparing people for death? Has the Church not explained that death is not the end?—Not because a pretend cuddly toy will collect us—but because Jesus himself said he’s preparing a place, that he’ll collect us when it’s time, and there will be a new world, with no more suffering. Have we made angels and Jesus so rule-based, so frightening, so detached from the reality of our lives, that people prefer to think of Paddington collecting the Queen? Is that safer somehow, less demanding of us perhaps? When we are trying to make sense of death, coping with all the upheaval and insecurity that even the death of a distant person will bring, surely that is the time we need to know where to turn. I’m sad that Paddington Bear seems to be filling that spot. I feel it’s time we turned round, and tried to find God again.