On the 9th of September I woke up in Indonesia to two message notifications from my mum. “Send photos of the beach, not too many mind” and, half an hour after that “announced seconds ago the Queen has died”. In the conversations I’ve had since, particularly those preparing for this article, the word ‘surreal’ has been bandied about a fair bit; but waking up jetlagged, disoriented, and very far from England can only be described as a surreal way to learn about Queen Elizabeth’s passing. I was in Oxford when Prince Philip died last year, writing an essay with noise cancelling headphones in as Tom Tower rang incessantly. In Bali, there were no bells and no flowers. The UK’s national silence took place in the middle of the night. Within a few days, the Balinese had all heard about London’s mythical ‘queue’, but the reason it had gathered seemed less important.

Much has changed since the death of the last British monarch. When George VI passed away in 1952, there was almost a four-hour window between the discovery of his body and the BBC broadcast. The BBC were solely responsible for communicating the death to the world. The Daily Herald paid tribute to King George as a ‘great gentleman, a modest King’, while The Daily Mirror philosophised that ‘you do not have to be on a battlefield to die for your country.’ The obituaries show an unavoidable divide between the private life of a well-liked man (exacerbated then by unseen domestic photographs) and the remembrance of a national figurehead, leading to a reflection on what it is to be British. The Queen’s death certificate indicates the time of death as 3.10pm. Her family were granted a similar interval of privacy before the news officially broke in the early evening via a global Press Association wire. As the longest-reigning British monarch (and the first of the digital age) the coverage of her death was unprecedented, only hinted at by the instantaneous coverage of Diana Spencer’s passing and the scheduled broadcasts commemorating Prince Philip. We reached out to a number of journalists to try and understand the atmosphere in British newsrooms on the 8th of September and the amount of work done in anticipation of this day.

My co-editor, Tom, spoke with Harry Taylor, a freelance reporter who writes for the Camden New Journal and updates breaking news on The Guardian’s Live Blog. Like many other journalists, he became aware that something was happening when there was a flurry of hyperactivity in the House of Commons and made his way down to the palace.

‘I’ll just hang around for a bit is always a good journalistic maxim. Just hang around for a bit longer than you think because you lose nothing from it. It got to 6:30pm, an hour-and-a-half after I arrived, and I started to walk away from the palace gates to leave. I got to about 20 yards away, turned back and looked back at the palace and I see the ropes on the flag starting to be waved… all of a sudden you see the flag get lowered. And then of course everyone’s phones go absolutely mental. The BBC, The Guardian, they were all immediately there with ‘The Queen dies, 96’… I think for a lot of people it was just surreal.’

That evening, Taylor filed a colour piece detailing his experience in the crowd. He spent the following weeks working remotely for The Guardian, fact checking and streamlining content for their live blog.

‘You’re covering national events. You’re pulling in contributions from other correspondents and editors from different parts of the country. You’re taking that in, you’re reading the wires, you’re watching Sky News to cover whether it’s the visuals of either of them at Balmoral or the walkabout that took place… you’re the centre and the hub of it all.

To summarise: ‘You’ve got to mentally spin a lot of plates.’ Taylor emphasised the need to include an accurate range of perspectives, offering the example of Prince Andrew. Following his address at Balmoral, the Duke of York tried to speak with members of the crowd and was met with silence. Despite their widespread sympathy for the Royal Family, the British public made one thing very clear—The Queen’s death did not absolve Andrew of his dealings with Jeffrey Epstein. As Taylor puts it, without these stories ‘you end up in a situation in which there’s no criticism, there’s no downside, there’s no qualification or anything.’ 

Unlike the obituaries and programmes scrupulously prepared in anticipation of the death, The Guardian live blog was reactive and objective. Updates drew from trustworthy sources like Reuters, PA Media and colleagues on the ground. Under the pressure of reporting live, wider fact-checking often relied on intuition, with social media offering up a minefield of false stories. One popular tweet which showed a courtier on a plane with the royal corgis was suggested for the blog. As a self-professed ’slight aviation geek’, Taylor recognised that the aircraft was an older model than would be expected. This incongruity, combined with the source of the tweet (a nameless, anonymous account) prompted him to hold off on incorporating the image into the feed. This intuition proved correct—the photograph later proved to be from the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.

The British press did not simply report on events following the Queen’s death, they informed them. News coverage invoked sentimentality and ceremony across the world. When asked if any of his work for The Guardian was prepared before September the 8th, or prescribed a specific tone by his higher-ups, Taylor laughed, clarified the question, and replied ‘it’s the news! It’s what happened.’ Although he affirmed that he could not speak for any other member of the paper, updating the live blog left no time to ask ‘right, what’s the editorial view on this?’

Taylor returned to Green Park on the 10th of September to get a sense of the atmosphere which he says informed the accuracy of later live content. A week later he joined the infamous queue, traipsing nine hours from East London to the royal coffin and noted details that weren’t being reported on. The National Theatre had opened its doors as a rest venue. The Salvation Army were handing out water bottles. With a fuller understanding, Taylor wrote about the mythical queue and his experience meeting people that day.

Robert White, obituaries editor of The Guardian, told me about his department’s experience. Unlike Taylor, White’s work began while Queen Elizabeth II was very much alive. The national papers will have had a version of the Queen’s obituary ready to go for over 70 years, but the piece that The Guardian ultimately ran—an 8,000-word obit by Stephen Bates—was commissioned by White.

‘It had been set up as the first 15 pages of a prepared 20-page supplement, with the text updated at the time of the Platinum Jubilee, so just needed to be updated with the Queen’s last constitutional duties, two days before her death, of accepting Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister and appointing Liz Truss as his successor, so raising the number of the Queen’s PMs from 14 to 15.’

Written in July 2016, White’s article In at the death: the art of the celebrity obituary, reflected on the year’s celebrity deaths and the transformation of obituary writing in a post-internet world. 2016 was a year of numerous high profile ‘departures’. The BBC published 49 pre-prepared obituaries (a 50% increase on the previous year) as they updated the public on the passings of Muhammed Ali, David Bowie, and Gene Wilder, to name a few. In the piece, White explained that ‘now that anyone can query anything from their phone, we have to maintain hundreds of obits to an ever-higher standard.’ Stories that ‘would have been told by specialist writers, with the aid of specialist reference books’ are now susceptible to public scrutiny. In a decade of social media and cinematic biopics, people feel increasingly entitled to know about others. 

I asked how The Guardian had navigated this change in regard to the Queen’s obituary, at this point still imagining an 80-year-old office pin board covered in lines of red tape and stamps. White clarified that Bates’s piece was started from scratch; the obituary hadn’t been adapted from a pre-internet version. He went on to affirm that ‘these days the details have to be precise and accurate, since any reader can check almost anything on the internet’ and added, to my surprise, that obituaries have become far less ‘writerly’ or ‘floaty’ as access to information has shifted. The obituary in question is certainly informative. Bates anchors Queen Elizabeth II in the context of her family. There is hardly another place to go in a life where identity, career, and relationships all centre around the family network, but for me at least, The Guardian’s obituary presents Elizabeth as a period of British history, a queen between two kings. Perhaps that’s the most accurate portrayal around.

Taylor and White were both quick to disclaim that their experience at The Guardian may not be representative of other papers. I spoke with Georgia Heneage, who shed some light on the operation at The Times. Heneage has been a writer with The Times’ obituary section for 8 months, calling the department ‘a unique place to work within journalism’ in its delivery of longform narratives. Explaining how the department handled the Queen’s obituary, Heneage tells me ‘there’s almost no figure like her in our obituary system.’ She estimates at dozens of rewrites beginning decades ago, with updates becoming more frequent in the past few years and describes the final piece as a ‘tapestry of different writers’ from different decades. Unlike many other papers, The Times do not include writer credits on obituaries. In regard to their colossal obituary for Queen Elizabeth, this anonymity drives home the plurality of contributing voices. At over 16,000 words, Heneage says that the piece will almost certainly be the longest Times obituary this century. For reference The Times commemorated Hilary Mantel, the celebrated British author who passed away on the 24th of September, in just under 3,000 words.

With the exception of the queen, The Times’ obituaries fall into one of two categories: pre-written, and live. Those of notable figures may be fully or partially pre-written and kept on file. Live obituaries are those researched in hindsight. They relate the stories of lesser-known figures who lived eccentric lives or had an exceptional influence. The Times tend to take their time with the family interviews and research required for these non-time sensitive pieces, occasionally publishing up to a few weeks after The Telegraph and The Guardian.

Heneage notes that all obituaries tread the line between the public and the personal, and that pieces are often crafted by ‘focussing on intimate details that paint a picture of someone’s life.’ This approach falters slightly for the Queen, a woman at once inherently public and fiercely private. According to Heneage, The Times focussed on how Elizabeth ‘symbolically chartered Britain’ placing her in relation to the people, government and history of her country. White’s article In at the death relates a similar foundation of personal details, recalling Zaha Hadid’s non-commissioned architectural designs and the magic shows Paul Daniels’ put on during his military service. The often bizarre comments these articles receive are a testament to their narrative power, their ability to introduce a celebrity to a new audience even after their passing. Under the obituary of the late Gangsta’s Paradise rapper Coolio, one Mrs Paterson has taken the time to add ‘I had never heard of Coolio (as someone well into my seventh decade) but have to respect someone who gets off crack cocaine, works for the fire department etc. I will now turn up my hearing aids and listen to his songs.’

Of the three journalists we spoke with, Heneage was the only one in the office as the news broke. She remembers it as both tense (‘you could have cut the atmosphere with an, I don’t know, knife or whatever’) and oddly calm, because everything was prewritten and scheduled. Filed articles weren’t exclusive to obituaries with all sections having pieces ready to go: ‘it’s set out on the page and you pretty much need to press publish.’ She guesses that the atmosphere of prepared anticipation would have been ubiquitous in British newsrooms although White described The Guardian as having ‘a lot to finalise in a very short time.’ The BBC are known to have been well prepared for Elizabeth’s passing, holding annual ‘London Bridge is Down’ days where the press team would simulate the passing of the Queen, hypothetically co-ordinating the release of obituaries, broadcasts, and breaking news. Heneage attended one such practice while in training, an experience that can only have added to the sense of unreality on the 8th of September.

After speaking with Heneage, I called my dad, who used to work in post-production at the BBC, to hear if TV media would have had a similar degree of preparation to the written press. During his time there, the Monarch’s official BBC obituary was updated on a yearly basis. This was true of other content as well. The night she died, a pre-recorded programme was broadcast where all of the UKs living former Prime Ministers spoke of the monarch in the past tense. BBC Events, the department that covers large-scale events, such as the UK’s national Armistice Remembrance at the Cenotaph, produced the funeral. The team had ten days to rig Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall, an operation that would have been years in the planning. In a remarkable speech paying tribute to ‘Elizabeth the Great’, Boris Johnson spoke about the emotional toil of contributing to this content:

‘I hope the House will not mind if I begin with a personal confession. A few months ago, the BBC came to see me to talk about Her Majesty the Queen and we sat down, and the cameras started rolling and they requested that I should talk about her in the past tense. And I’m afraid I simply choked up. I couldn’t go on. And I am really not easily moved to tears, but I was so overcome with sadness that I had to ask them to go away. And I know that today there are countless people in this country and around the world who have experienced the same sudden access of unexpected emotion.’

This movement from present to past tense proved difficult as the British public processed the loss of a great national constant. Last week I blurted out the correction ‘There hasn’t been a Charles III yet’ as my friend joked about topical costume options. She laughed back ‘have I got some news for you.’ Many of us are blundering through this transition: discussion of celebrity queue skipping still sparks anger, and Princess Diana conspiracy theories have proliferated on TikTok. As a nation, we’re progressing through the five stages of grief at differing rates.

Perhaps the press’s ability to publish immaculate obituaries at the moment of death has contributed to this skewed sense of reality.  Last month, Emma Tucker, editor of The Sunday Times, told The Oxford Blue: ‘We are neck deep in the Queen’s funeral. I can’t pretend I am not looking forward to getting back to BAU [business as usual]. From the comments, so are our readers.’ Business as usual resumed rather suddenly, as Britain emerged from national mourning into a surplus of worrying global affairs stories. The press chivvied us through a brisk cold plunge of remembrance. In the barrage of obituaries and tributes, only one piece of press journalism moved me, offering a momentary closeness to a real woman. Woven into The Times’ highly crafted, authorless obituary was an extract from the young princess’s diary on the day that George VI was crowned. In the span of her choreographed, scripted life, this insight into the little girl’s genuine awe seems almost invasive. Describing Westminster Abbey as ‘very, very wonderful’ the eleven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor recorded that ‘the arches and beams at the top were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned, at least I thought so.’