Everything That Happens After Queen Elizabeth’s Death

The first plans for Operation London Bridge were discussed in the 1960s, just years after a 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II assumed the throne. Several decades later, every detail has been seen to.

By Sarah Grossbart Sep 08, 2022 6:00 PMTags
Watch: Queen Elizabeth II's Journey to The Throne

Prince Charles and Prince William received the job promotions they each had been dreading. 

Heir apparent since his birth in 1948, 73-year-old Charles became king the moment his mum Queen Elizabeth II passed away Sept. 8, making way for William to eventually acquire his long-held title of Prince of Wales and setting into motion Operation Golden Orb, the plan for Charles' ascension to the throne. 

With the Ts crossed and the Is dotted on that particular procedure for years already, the two heirs were simply left to wait for what they actually preferred would never happen at all. 

"I think the royal family has to modernize and develop as it goes along and it has to stay relevant and that's the challenge for me," William mused in a 2016 BBC documentary of the considerations he's put into his future role. "How do I make the royal family relevant in the next 20 years' time—you know, it could be 40 years' time, it could be 60 years' time—I have no idea when that's doing to be and I certainly don't lie awake waiting or hoping for it because it sadly means my family have moved on and I don't want that."

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And that's just one piece of the meticulously thought out Operation London Bridge—detailed in a 2017 article in The Guardian—that commenced when Britain's longest-reigning monarch passed away at the age of 96. 

Many of the arrangements took place long before the public was aware. The Queen's private secretary Sir Christopher Geidt, for instance, was tasked with informing U.K. prime minister Liz Truss that she had died before the Foreign Office's Global Response Centre spread word to the 15 governments outside the U.K. where the Queen is also the head of state and the 36 other nations of the Commonwealth. The coded phrase used—"London Bridge is down"—was similar to the "Hyde Park corner" messengers delivered when the Queen's father King George VI passed in 1952 so that switchboard operators wouldn't be clued in to what was going on.

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Only then did a footman, dressed in mourning clothes, tack the black-edged notice to the gates of Buckingham Palace, with an alert sent to media organizations via the Press Association. The palace's website also received a transformation—just one page bearing the same text on a dark background—while the U.K. Government site displayed a black banner with the news. 

As for what takes place next, here's what we know: 

What happens to Charles? 
Immediately deemed King upon his mother's death, Charles will be allowed to pick his own name. Though at one point he was reportedly considering George—after the U.K.'s other King Georges, including his grandfather and great-grandfather—King Charles III is the expected choice. His wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall will also be named Queen Camilla, a situation that seemed entirely unlikely for years considering her unpopularity following Princess Diana's death. 

Amid all of that, the new monarch will have to ready himself to deliver a speech to the nation in primetime, then report to St James's Palace the next morning where the Accession Council will officially proclaim him as King. Later that afternoon, Charles will meet with the prime minister and his cabinet for the first time as sovereign.  

On the third day after his mother's death, Charles will embark on a brief tour of the United Kingdom, beginning with a visit to the Scottish Parliament. Eventually, his likeness will make its way to stamps, currency and post office boxes and an official coronation will be scheduled to take place several months after the Queen's funeral. 

How will the news be transmitted? 
Obviously the story will dominate for some time, with regular programming pulled off television screens in favor of broadcasters delivering details in the dark clothing they're expected to have on hand for the occasion. (When BBC newsreaders announced Prince Philip's April 2021 passing, they wore black.)

According to The Guardian, royal experts have long ago inked contracts to speak exclusively on certain channels. As one source told the paper (which already has a list of stories prepared to publish, pinned to the deputy editor's bulletin board), "I am going to be sitting outside the doors of the Abbey on a hugely enlarged trestle table commentating to 300 million Americans about this."

For years, newsreaders at all of the major networks have been rehearsing for this situation, carefully parsing which words they will use. And yet still it may be a struggle, with one former head of BBC News telling The Guardian it was hard for his staff to even consider, as "she is the only monarch that most of us have ever known."

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For those not tuned into the small screen, radio stations will follow a similar protocol. Alerted by blue "obit lights" that flash in times of emergency, DJs at Britain's commercial stations will play a set of soothing, calm instrumental music in the lead up to delivering the news, The Guardian detailing they all have prepared playlists "of 'Mood 2' (sad) or 'Mood 1' (saddest)" ready to go. 

As BBC producer Chris Price wrote in a 2011 Huffington Post article, "If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on. Something terrible has just happened."

Press Association via AP Images

What else will the public see? 
Britain's Union Flags will be lowered to half mast (ideally within 10 minutes of the announcement) and books of condolences, using looseleaf paper, so inappropriate messages can be removed, will be put out in locations around the world. The Ministry of Defence will arrange for gun salutes and a national minute of silence will be observed. 

Both houses of parliament will be recalled and many workers in the U.K. will be sent home early. Even pilots will have the job of delivering the sad news over in-flight speakers. 

When will a funeral take place?
Ten days will pass before the full state funeral at Westminster Abbey. During that time, the Queen will lay in repose inside the Buckingham Palace's throne room. Should she pass away at Sandringham, her residence in Norfolk, protocol dictates she be transported to London's St. Pancras station by royal train where she will be met by the prime minister and his cabinet. Her death at Balmoral in Scotland would set into motion Operation Unicorn (transport by royal train). Anywhere further flung would require Operation Overstudy, with her body being transferred by plane. 

Five days after the Queen's death, her coffin will be transported to Westminster Hall along a ceremonial route (a rehearsal will take place a day earlier) where members of the public can pay their respects. For 23 hours a day, mourners can visit her coffin atop a raised platform known as a catafalque draped in purple. More than 200,000 visited the Queen Mother after her 2002 death, but The Guardian predicts the Queen could attract more than 500,000. Naturally, VIP guests can reserve a specific time slot. 

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What would a funeral look like? 
With many COVID restrictions lifted, royal watchers should expect more pomp and circumstance than what took place after Philip's passing. Mourners will line the streets to observe processionals in London and in Windsor, where they will hold a committal service in St. George's Chapel.

And both Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle are expected to make the 5,000-plus mile trek from their home in Montecito, Calif., no quarantine required now that travel restrictions have lifted between the United States and the U.K.

The Foreign Office is dealt the enormous task of arranging the arrivals of heads of state and other foreign VIPs, a job that became trickier during the coronavirus pandemic. The Home Office, meanwhile, is in charge of security detail. Other concerns that have been raised include the worry that so many people might travel to London that the city is overrun, with accommodations, public transportation and food supply stretched thin. 

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Where will the Queen be laid to rest? 
Following services at both Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle, she will be buried in Windsor's King George VI Memorial Chapel.

With plans first coming together back in the 1960s, absolutely no detail of the entire 10-day process has been left to chance. In fact, The Guardian reports the various officials involved have met two or three times a year to refine, hash out and smooth over any potential wrinkles. "Everyone around the world is looking to us to do this again perfectly," explained one participant, referencing previous state funerals, "and we will."