Family: A Moving Hour Watching The Queen Lie In State The Day Before Her Final Farewell

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Walking into the quiet of Westminster Hall, it was impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the historic scene in front of me. Draped in the royal standard with the Imperial State Crown, and atop a majestic purple catafalque, was the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II—the late monarch's body resting in peace ahead of her state funeral.

On Sunday afternoon—during a rare moment away from the fray of covering the ceremonial events and family moments following the queen’s death—I was given special access to the sombre scene for an hour alongside five other journalists.

Though I have been reporting on every moment of this story since the announcement of the late monarch’s death on September 8, my first steps inside the 924-year-old space were the first time it truly felt real—a sudden snap back to reality after a whirlwind 10 days of round-the-clock news coverage and little sleep.

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The weight of the moment as you first lay eyes on the queen's coffin surrounded by the King’s Body Guards, all locked in a deep meditative state as they guarded Her Majesty’s body, felt heavy. If it were not for the gentle flickers of the tall candles on each corner of the podium bringing it to life, it could have been a classic painting. I had goosebumps.

As I was escorted up a hidden staircase to my spot on a discreet riser at the back of the hall—carefully decorated to blend in with the stone walls of the building—I bowed my head and said a prayer for the dead before allowing myself to look out across the expanse of the room.

Refocusing, it was impossible not to be drawn to the crowds of people filing through the space, the quiet rustling of their coats and their cushioned footsteps on the thick beige carpet being the only audible sounds.

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Mourners pay their respects in Westminster Hall. © Yui Mok - Getty Images Mourners pay their respects in Westminster Hall.

People from all walks of life and backgrounds streamed through the allocated spaces, almost all of them having queued for more than 13-hours to experience the moment for themselves. After exhaustive waits, the relief of finally making it inside and experiencing the sight in front of them often resulted in a wave of emotions as they stood on top of the stairs and faced the queen’s coffin.

Some briefly stood to the side of her body—bowing, curtseying or marking the sign of the cross on their body—while a few could only briefly glance before raising a tissue to their eyes. While not everyone walking through the room would call themselves a monarchist, the deep respect for the queen and her dedication to a life of service was visible in every single person.

For those that joined the five-mile long queue alone, the new friendships that had been formed out in the cold were easy to spot. The sight of an elderly British veteran being helped by a Japanese couple put a lump in my throat, their journey together coming to an end as they bid each other farewell at the exit of the hall. After being starved of human contact for so long during the pandemic, these are the moments that bring heart back to a city.

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Members of the public stand in the queue in Victoria Tower Gardens. © ODD ANDERSEN - Getty Images Members of the public stand in the queue in Victoria Tower Gardens.

Despite the heavy pedestrian traffic, the room was kept impressively spotless. Any debris making its way onto the carpets was quickly brushed away or picked up by attendants. Even the candles used in the vigil were free of unsightly drips. Every so often a member of staff would enter the room to pick the dried wax from the burning yellow pillars and carefully place them into a wastebasket.

While we have seen the queen’s grandchildren and children keep short vigils at Westminster Hall, it’s been the job of the Gentlemen at Arms (the most senior of the sovereigns guards), the Royal Company of Archers (the sovereign’s official guards in Scotland) and the Tudor-uniformed Yeomen of the Guard (the oldest established military corps in Britain) to keep Her Majesty under 24-hour watch. Each shift lasts for six hours, with the guards standing vigil switching places every 20 minutes. Their laser-like focus and military precision as they swap positions is beyond impressive.

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The queen’s grandchildren stood vigil on Saturday evening. © AARON CHOWN - Getty Images The queen’s grandchildren stood vigil on Saturday evening.

As I prepared to leave the venue, another riser was being cleared along the side of the room for some of the many high profile visitors who have flown for Monday’s funeral service at Westminster Abbey, all hoping to have a moment in front of the queen. Moments later, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden arrived to show their respects. Leaders including those from Ukraine, Brazil, Canada and India also paid visits.

At the time of writing this, the queue to see the queen lying in state is expected to close in hours, upon reaching full capacity. Final visitors are expected to finish around 6:30am on September 19. For the estimated 400,000 who made the journey, it’ll no doubt be a moment they will never forget. I’m honoured to have been one of them.

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Staunton, who will make her debut as the late monarch in the Netflix drama's fifth season, said that she was "very grateful" producers paused filming.However, unlike her predecessors, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, Staunton has had the unique experience of portraying what she describes as a "more familiar" version of the late monarch.

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