Lying In State: Mourners describe 'eerie but beautiful' Westminster Hall atmosphere

·Political Correspondent, Yahoo News UK
·5 min read
The Imperial State Crown lays atop the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it Lies in State inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London on September 15, 2022. - Queen Elizabeth II will lie in state in Westminster Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, until 0530 GMT on September 19, a few hours before her funeral, with huge queues expected to file past her coffin to pay their respects. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / various sources / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The most striking part about the Queen's lying in state was the silence. (Getty Images)

There is a quiet at the Queen's lying in state that you would not expect in the middle of one of the busiest and most bustling cities in the world.

In this ancient, 900-year-old space in the Palace of Westminster, hundreds of thousands of mourners will file past to catch a glimpse of the Queen's coffin, in a room broadcast to millions around the world.

The sombre atmosphere inside this vast chamber today - described by visitors as 'eerie, but beautiful' - is a world away from the usual day-to-day chatter of tourists using audioguides, footsteps echoing loudly.

Through an adjacent archway is a cafe which usually does a steady trade supplying coffees and cakes to the throngs of visitors and families. It's unsurprisingly closed, serving instead as an entrance for the disabled mourners who've also waited for hours.

The coffin is on a purple platform draped in the Royal Standard, a red and yellow flag featuring lions and an angel-harp - with a wreath featuring white roses, dahlias and foliage from Balmoral and Windsor, laid next to the shimmering Imperial crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre.

A cross stands at the foot of the coffin, with four candles flickering at each corner.

In the light, the crown glimmers with diamonds so bright they are mesmerising.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Members of the public react after paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall on September 15, 2022 in London, England.  Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
Many mourners were overcome with emotion when the saw the Queen's coffin. (Reuters)
The King's Bodyguard the Yeomen of the Guard, members of the Scots Guards, and Gentlemen at Arms change guard duties by the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it Lies in State inside Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Britain September 15, 2022.  Odd Andersen/Pool via REUTERS
The King's Bodyguard the Yeomen of the Guard, members of the Scots Guards, and Gentlemen at Arms change guard duties. (Reuters)
Members of the public file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre, lying in state on the catafalque in Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, London, ahead of her funeral on Monday. Picture date: Friday September 16, 2022.    Yui Mok/Pool via REUTERS
Some people got out of their wheelchairs to pay their respects. (Reuters)

Around 200 people can be spotted in the room at a given time - yet, if you close your eyes, you could almost think you're alone.

The only sounds which punctuate the silence are the occasional sob, a coo of a baby, and the shuffling of feet across the stone floor.

Finally taking their moment to stand alongside the casket, mourners take a few seconds to stand, bow, curtsy, or simply give a respectful nod of the head.

Almost all onlookers keep moving of their own accord, with stewards - briefed to maintain the steady flow through the hall - whispering a curt 'Keep moving' to any seen to be lingering a little too long.

One of few audible sounds in the hall is the lone banging of a stick on the ground to signal the replacing of the guard every 20 minutes, and the guard itself.

Read more: Queen to be reunited with Philip in tiny King George VI Memorial Chapel

Their steady surefooted march down the narrow steps reverberates around the room as they exit a small archway to the awe of mourners.

And you would never guess the observers had stood in the queue for around nine hours.

Despite what must have been a gruelling wait, they are calm, focused, and present.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Members of the public react after paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall on September 15, 2022 in London, England. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
At times sobbing punctuated the silence and echoed around the hall. (Reuters)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Members of the public react as they see the coffin after waiting to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall on September 15, 2022 in London, England. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
Despite some mourners queuing for nine hours or more to catch a glimpse of the Queen's coffin, nobody looked tired or exhausted. (Reuters)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Members of the public react after paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall on September 15, 2022 in London, England. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
People comforted loved ones as they filed past the coffin. (Reuters)

Some hold babies, some hold walking sticks, many hold each other; people of every age, different ethnicities, people of many different religions filing past silently.

"It really hits you, doesn't it?" one man tells a steward as he leaves, while another onlooker wearing military medals salutes the coffin as he exits.

Read more: Nearly 200 key workers and volunteers invited to Queen’s funeral

Outside on the streets of Whitehall, the people who have queued for hours are emotional.

Mourners frequently say the hours of queuing are a price worth paying - with one telling Yahoo News they queued for 11 hours, and were among the first people in and out.

Another told us, tearfully: "Still, now, I think we find it quite difficult to realise that she's not here anymore. And, I don't know, it's just a really sad day."

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Amanda from Canada said she had not expected to feel too emotional. (Yahoo News UK)

Amanda from Canada said she had not expected to be as touched by the lying in state because she was not British.

"I'm Canadian, so I don't feel as connected to the Queen as some British people might be," she said.

"I think just being in there it was a very powerful, and [it had a] moving ambiance... people were so amazed, at eight or nine hours of waiting.

"I was expecting it to be very churchy. It was actually really nice comforting in there just so serene."

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Nick described the atmosphere in Westminster Hall as "eerie". (Yahoo News UK)
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Alice said she was more emotional than she had expected to be. (Yahoo News UK)

Another mourner, Nick, said his experience in Westminster Hall was "eerie, in a way".

"It was very beautiful in there," he said, simply. "And very emotional, definitely."

Alice, who attended the Queen's mother's lying in state in 2002, said she'd anticipated what the atmosphere may be like.

Read more: I queued overnight to see the Queen lying in state – here's what it's really like and how long you have to wait

"I came to the Queen mother's lying in state - so I kind of knew what to expect," she said.

"But it's always a very moving experience.

"I didn't expect myself to be quite so emotional. I think it's just wonderful we're able to go and do this."

Read more: Queen's death: Day-to-day guide of what happens next

The public viewing opened at 5pm on Wednesday, and will stay open 24 hours a day until 6.30am on Monday – the day of the Queen’s funeral, which will take place at 11am.

Whitehall officials have worked out a 10-mile route for mourners until then, with warnings they could wait up to 30 hours before they see the coffin.

On Friday they temporarily closed the queue for six hours to ensure everyone got an opportunity to view the coffin - however, shortly after, a queue began to join the queue.

Watch: How the UK has changed during the Queen's 70-year reign