In the run-up to the state funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, 750,000 people were expected to travel to London. Days earlier, queues had started to form across the Thames from historic Westminster Hall, where her coffin rests high on a catafalque. Late Thursday afternoon, the line was almost 7 kilometers long.
We all know this because there is an official live queue tracker, which reports the length and average time to destination at a speed of about 0.5 miles per hour.
Those in line will be given wristbands to mark their place. There are “additional welfare facilities” (read: toilets) and water fountains to alleviate the inconvenience of slowly moving around during the day and night. There is also detailed information on what to bring (food, water), what not to bring (bottles, camping equipment, large bags) and how to behave. There is plenty of security, not that it seems necessary so far, while archive footage of the Queen is shown on a big screen. Volunteer faith leaders are on hand to help mourners process what they are experiencing. Not even Disneyland, with its famous queue management strategies, can match this.
That so many came from so far to wait so long for such a close look at the late monarch’s coffin will strike many around the world as curious and some as outrageous. People took days off from work and picked up children from school. They’re not waiting for the latest iPhone, but for a chance to pay their respects to someone most of them have never met.
Most Americans tend to disdain long lines. “It was unbelievable,” a friend texted when she returned home from a trip to London this summer amid the travel chaos. “It took me two hours to get to Heathrow and the people were just tolerant and dutiful. Would never happen in the US. Americans would be outraged and there would be chaos.”
To the rugged individualist, queues generally feel like a misuse of time, suggest poor organization and seem like evidence of a herd mentality. They can be uncomfortable if you wear the wrong shoes or don’t have access to the bathroom. In the early ’90s, I lost all feeling in my toes after standing in line at minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) to buy a few essentials at a generic supermarket in Moscow.
Yet we all stand in line as an inevitable means to an end—to get through airport security or onto a ski lift or into a museum exhibit. On a February, I happily waited in a long line to buy a spectacular hot chocolate at a stand in Paris. But I’ve never done anything like what hundreds of thousands of Brits and visitors are doing now. It takes a certain stoicism, humility and determination to drop everything and be a part of it. In the never-ending debate over whether there is such a thing as society, there seems to be solid evidence of this.
Orwell was not wrong; there is something about Britain’s reputation for being queue tolerant, some dating back to the industrial revolution and others to wartime rationing. Queuing correctly is so synonymous with common decency that when the UK conducted its first citizenship test in 2010, it insisted on how to queue properly. When former Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to defend his policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, he accused male refugees of “paying people smugglers to jump in line”.
But the reputation of a nation that likes to queue — the Brit who stands in the back of the queue before asking what it’s for — is usually overblown. Yes, Brits wait in line at night for Wimbledon tickets, but Americans camp for tickets to a Duke University basketball game. Britons, like everyone else, were furious about the travel chaos, they made clear on social media. Even recent reports that Tesco shoppers would rather queue than use self-checkout turned out to be exaggerated.
Those queuing to see the Queen describe many motives: being part of a unique moment in Britain’s long life, expressing gratitude and paying their respects. The deaths of other historical figures have drawn large-scale public gatherings in the past, but nothing like this.
About 200,000 came to pay their respects to the Queen Mother in 2002. Over 300,000 passed through Westminster Hall to pay tribute to George VI in 1952. A similar turnout was in honor of British war leader Winston Churchill – the wait was about three hours and the line was about a mile long. Some 250,000 Americans waited as much as 10 hours to witness John F. Kennedy’s state presentation. About 100,000 mourners paid tribute to the late South African president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and world changer Nelson Mandela, and many were disappointed they couldn’t. I set aside the communist figures of Mao and Lenin.
In every way, the mood among those waiting to pay their respects is solemn, kind, expectant, joyful, sad, and above all, resolute. People made new friends, stood in silence or talked. No one seemed to doubt that the wait was worth it. Those coming out of the historic hall describe the experience as visceral.
FOMO aside, how excited would you be to join a five-mile and up to 30-hour queue? If you had asked me a few weeks ago, the answer would have been quick. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad there are so many who don’t hesitate.