I’m sitting in the London airport and paging through a free copy of The Week magazine. There’s not much of interest inside, largely because most of the topics are already well entrenched in my brain. I don’t need to read anything more about what’s freaking the planet out à la extreme presidential French candidates or the bounty of bombastic other than French heads of state. There was coverage on the March for Science, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, and of course, Her Royal Majesty the Queen’s birthday. While Great Britain might not be lighting off defective missiles in Elizabeth’s honor, she’s got one up on Kim because not only does she get two birthdays a year, she’s also still alive and kicking.
Elizabeth II turned 91 years old last week, and passing such a milestone means she’s been reigning for over 65 years. That’s a long time. And while I applaud her resiliency, I often walk around and remark on the extensive public branding that is associated with the Head of the Commonwealth. Post boxes, currency—you name it. Her likeness is everywhere. From a practical standpoint, you can’t help but wonder about the Queen’s eventual demise, and the extraordinary effort that will be triggered to change out all of these national emblems.
So if I’m finding myself wondering about this eventuality, it should have been no surprise to flip through The Week and find a two page spread covering what will happen once Her Royal Highness falls asleep for good. Curious as any other rubber necking motorist, I lingered on these pages to have a look at what was in store for the Kingdom.
In general, I think that the West keeps death and all of its trappings at more than an arm’s length. It is increasingly commonplace that our elderly get folded into minivans and checked into sterile retirement homes so they can tread through their remaining days largely unintruded upon; to brush up with someone nearer to death might force us young bucks to actually consider our own mortality. Yuck. Better to stare into a phone displaying useless ephemera rather than enjoy fleeting engagements with our aging loved ones.
Man, we suck. Or at least I do.
But back to the article in The Week. According to a list of solemn pre-planned responses, as soon as the Queen passes, the code words “London Bridge is Down” will be passed across communications circuits. I have two thoughts about this. First, is it still a code if the news-reading world is supplied with this information in advance? Second, I wonder if the Queen Herself got to choose this phrase. In all honesty, I think it’s a pretty good one— and far superior to that of her father’s (King George VI had “Hyde Park Corner,” which sounds a bit more like a TFL bus stop…because it is).
But what about the rest of us? We may not be royals, but isn’t it our right as mandatory die-ers to have our wishes accommodated in a similar sort of fashion?
I had a little extra time to kill in the airport, so I decided to give this question a bit of a think. First, I polled my local dairy farmer to see what he might like his notification of death to be. Not missing a beat, he immediately responded with, “Dismal start.” So tragic yet so self-effacing. His was not what I was looking for—but that’s British dark humor for you. I decided to move on to people I knew better.
Before I go any further, let me say that I totally get that this blog entry butts up against a post about cemeteries. This is pure coincidence since I didn’t time my visit to Highgate Cemetery with Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. Further, yesterday I FaceTimed Dad and he answered from his workshop in the barn. He was assembling cutting boards made from Brazilian cherry, and while doing so he moved his phone to show me planks of wood forming the coffin he was building for his lawyer (“He needs to stop by so I can draw the outline of his body!” Dad said). With these things in mind, I suppose that my approach to dealing with death doesn’t exactly fit with the Western idiom. And while Dad has already built me a fantastic cutting board for my kitchen, I’m not exactly bugging him to build me my own pine box of subterranean economy.
Or will I?
Back to the code words. While waiting for my flight, I decided to poll my siblings— just to see what the collective might come up with for pre-epitaph epitaphs. I knew that I could count on them to produce some real gems about what they’d like their own codes to be, and indeed they did not disappoint. See, apart from Dad’s Grim Reaper cottage industry (effectively undercutting the undertaker), I come from a family of nurses and first responders. Most of them have been hands-on with the jagged edges that form a human end of life.
My sisters and brother are really fantastic when it comes to meting out incisive reality— and for this particular exchange, they quickly scrambled over my dismal start farmer. I will include a bit of what they provided here, but to protect their anonymity (somewhat), I won’t mention who said what when it comes to what they’d want their code words to be. I will add that they volunteered what our parents might have for phrases, and even I got pegged in the list (I never really came up with one for myself).
Here are some New Englander versions of “London Bridge Is Down”:
“It’s time for the ice cream social”
“Has run out of ketchup”
“Has gone to the Stanley Cup Finals”
“On permanent walkabout”
“Out of cereal”
“The hutch has been emptied”
“Used his last stick of butter”
“The bullet has left the chamber”
“Fox News has been cancelled”
“Fired his last cannon”
So I’d love to poll other folks to see what they have in mind for themselves, but I recognize that most aren’t obsessing about whether a steam train will come and drag their bones to Windsor Castle. We’ve all got lots of living that still needs to get done— and this must include the Queen, I would think. So I’ll just leave things here with the promise that I won’t be producing any more death-related posts. Besides, in wrapping this entry up I’m now gone from Heathrow and away from the doom and rain that too often smothers England. I’ve got some more short-term walkabouts yet to do— the kind spent in the sun.
Long live the Queen.