Prince Philip, a.k.a., the Duke of Edinburgh, and husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, past away last week. There was live media coverage of the Duke’s funeral last Saturday. Attendance of the service was limited due to COVID, and the seating arrangements of attendees followed social-distancing protocols.
One of the images that emerged from the funeral was of Queen Elizabeth sitting alone and isolated in the church during the service. The photo was instantly iconic. It so perfectly captured and conveyed the moment in which we’ve been living during the pandemic era. In the shot, the Queen sits wearing a black mask, her eyes staring into the middle distance. She’s in an otherwise empty row of pews. The rest of the royal family sitting apart, out of frame. The photo was taken by Jonathan Brady for the Associated Press as part of the limited media pool covering the ceremony.
The image can be symbolically read on several levels. The Queen has always been alone in a larger social sense. Her official role is solitary. She stands apart as the head of state in an official position that fully, thoroughly absorbs and is indivisible from her personal life, which was long ago subsumed by royal obligation. Outward displays of individual expression, opinion and personality are overwhelmed by protocols and the ceaseless gravity of public duty. It is a lonely, singular position. Here she is literally, physically set apart, and visibly emotionless.
The image reminds us that the Queen is old. She just turned 95. The role, the monarchy itself, are of course very old. As an institution in the U.K., the monarchy lost most of its practical relevance a long time ago. For much of modern history the role has been mostly symbolic, ritualistic, diplomatic and perfunctory in service to the country, virtually without political power, practically politically neutral.
The rows of empty pews and the face mask reveal the strange, at times downright surreal, times we’ve been experiencing with the COVID pandemic over the past year. It is a slow-burn tragedy of its own that has affected everybody, including the Queen, even in one of her darkest, most somber and private moments.