It’s a weird time to be in the UK. In the midst of a period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, the nation (once again) finds itself divided. Some will queue to pay their respects to the Queen’s coffin as it lies in state in Edinburgh and London, or lay flowers at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Many more will carry on with life as normal. Then there are others who will take – and already have – the opportunity to debate and protest the monarchy.
Each one of these responses is OK. In fact, they’re to be expected. No one really knows how to respond to death – what to do, what to say, how to feel. There are traditions and social customs, no definitive rules on how to grieve correctly. There are, however, apparently a lot of ways to get it wrong: too sycophantic or too reserved, lacking in stoicism or lacking in empathy.
On Saturday, the word “disgusting” trended on Twitter, alongside “The Queen” and “Meghan Markle”, a result of numerous tweets taking aim at those who, frankly, simply didn’t care about the news of a 96-year-old passing away and weren’t shy about saying so.
“You don’t have to be a fan of the Queen or royal family, but mocking someone’s death is truly vile. My timeline is already full of it and it’s disgusting. Have some respect,” said one user. “She was a mother, a grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, sister, cousin, friend etc. She was a human being. You have no heart,” wrote another.
But this is not a simple matter of an old lady dying. As the UK’s unelected head of state, the Queen and the Royal Family represent, for many, everything that’s wrong with the country’s imperialist past. As her supporters will point out, Queen Elizabeth II was more of a figurehead than an active political representative. But that’s one hell of a legacy to passively front. For republicans, now feels like the opportune moment to have a grown-up conversation about the future of the monarchy; for those whose ancestors were oppressed by colonialism, it feels equally important to ensure that the most uncomfortable parts of our history aren’t erased through the pomp of collective mourning.
Instead, the demand is that all citizens must grieve the Queen out of “decency” and “respect”. But as events are cancelled en masse and corporations plaster “RIP” graphics on social media, it often feels more like an exercise in cultural hegemony than genuine collective sorrow. Is the fitness brand Crossfit really being more respectful for posting a Queen-themed workout to Instagram, complete with a “1 min rest in silence”, than someone who instead acknowledges the monarchy’s faults? The pain and anger of the oppressed is no less valid than that of the institution and those who uphold it. Insisting otherwise only widens the chasm between the two.
It’s telling that many of the people who are critical of what they view to be inadequate grief also took aim at Diane Abbott and Stormzy over the weekend for attending a protest demanding justice for Chris Kaba, the 24-year-old unarmed Black man who was shot dead by Metropolitan Police officers last week. “Whilst the nation mourns, Diane Abbott goes on a BLM March in protest of the shooting of a convicted criminal,” reads one tweet. The irony is, of course, that everyone at that march was indeed mourning – just not the correct person. Yet anyone who truly cares about the UK’s national identity should be just as, if not more upset by Kaba’s death. What does it say about our culture if we save our tears only for those with power?
Even more worrying is the fact that the “grieve the royals, or else…” mentality doesn’t only exist online. Over the weekend, two people were arrested for protesting the monarchy in the UK: a man in Oxford, who was handcuffed to a police van, and a woman in Scotland, who will face criminal charges for holding a “fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” placard. On Monday, a man was arrested for heckling Prince Andrew. Whatever your views are, this is cause for concern. Protests should qualify you for arrest in a democratic society.
The policing of royal grief, then, seems to be less about genuine mourning and more about performative compliance. But no one should be able to tell us what to do, what to say or how to feel.