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In March, The Guardian published an 8,000-word story about what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies. The reporter for the story, Sam Knight, recorded every detail of the plans and the likely political and emotional consequences, from the type of coffin (lead-lined) to the number of available seats at spots along the queen’s funeral route. Knight addressed something most Brits have not even contemplated, a “psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind,” he wrote. The Huffington Post spoke to Knight last week to learn more about how he got the story.
How did this article come about?
Occasionally, long-form writers and editors from The Guardian have lunch and talk about things. It was the end of a turbulent and dispiriting 2016, and we looked at each other and said, “What happens next?” And someone said, “The queen is going to die.” And we were like, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
As soon as we started talking about what might happen, I thought of a New Yorker story by Evan Osnos about [President Donald] Trump’s first term. It came out in September, before the results, and it was written in the future tense. It was so shocking when you read it. It felt substantial, even though it was speculative journalism. I imagined I could write something along those lines about the death of the queen.
Your story is meticulously reported. Where did you begin?
Everything to do with the monarchy is based on precedent. My first thought was that even though this event is in the future, it’s going to be based on what happened in the past. So the first place I went was the National Archives.
I pulled up all the old files to do with the funerals of [King] George VI in 1952 and [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill in 1965. Seating plans. Processional routes. When to ring the bells. When to lower the flags. How to handle MPs and other politicians. It gave me a structure for the event. And it also gave me the right kind of questions to ask. If you read the reports, you suddenly knew to ask, “Is the coffin going to have a false lid?”
During the research process, did anything surprise you?
I was interviewing a former palace person ― you have to remember, the royals are busy, their schedules are incredibly hectic ― and I was thinking, this person must be so busy with running the royal household that there mustn’t be too much time for the funeral stuff. Is that an occasional thing? Give the plans a bit of a polish? Then this person looked at me like I was crazy, because I was unsure how important it would be. These state occasions become huge metaphors for the country. The queen’s funeral will be a time for the monarchy to restate itself. I had underestimated that.
Talk about the writing. It’s all in the future tense, which is so unusual.
It wasn’t too strange. But I was determined that the article would be brisk and unsentimental and just get on with it. No throat-clearing about “this event will never come to pass,” which is how articles like this tend to be written. I wanted this story to be matter-of-fact.
We talk about the queen as if she’s 75, but she’s 91. If you had a member of your family who was 91, they’d be in sheltered housing and you’d be looking after their bills. We are in an amazing state of denial.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This information is quite sensitive in the U.K., and we did give a lot of thought to how to present it online and in the paper. Publishing it in long-form allowed for a full sense of context and history.
Citizens have not even begun to process what it will feel like when the queen dies ― what an event it’s going to be. Whether you’re pro-monarchy or anti-monarchy, it’s going to alter your sense of what this country is. The death of the queen is approaching at this moment of maximum insecurity. With the Brexit vote and Scotland potentially leaving, it’s an unsettling time. These moments challenge your idea of British identity.
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