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In a `Unique Service,' the Sad, the Sweet and the Very Bitter

Royals enter Westminster Abbey
Diana's coffin is carried into Westminster Abbey, where VIPs gathered to hear a eulogy from her brother, Earl Spencer, and a tribute sung by Elton John. (Reuter)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A24

LONDON, Sept. 6—The last sad notes of Elton John's paean to Diana were still hanging in the air when her brother made the short walk across the black and white marble floor of Westminster Abbey and took two steps up to the gilded lectern.

Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, looked out across the royal family and his own relations facing each other over his sister's coffin. He then stunned the congregation of 2,000 and the rest of England with stinging rebukes of the media who hounded Diana and the royal family who rejected her.

In angry, unsparing language, Spencer, who moved to South Africa to escape the media's relentless interest in his marital problems, vowed to protect his two royal nephews from the ravages of the press and from the crushing confines of the monarchy.

"We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair," he told his dead older sister. "And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned."

As Spencer sat down, first to silence and then to a wave of prolonged applause, it was clear that the Spencer family was the driving force behind today's program. No member of the royal family spoke during the service, although 43 representatives from the House of Windsor were present at the cathedral.

There was no precedent for the service: Diana was no longer a royal but still a member of the royal family. She was also arguably the most loved woman in England, at least has been since her death. The goal was to blend royal pomp with Diana's informal spirit, with moments to mourn, to give thanks and to carry on in her example. As Queen Elizabeth II had promised, it was "a unique service for a unique person."

The mourners invited to Westminster Abbey began arriving about an hour before the 11 a.m. service. There were 19 cameras and giant television screens mounted on the church's soaring stone pillars, although broadcasters agreed not to show any pictures of the royal or Spencer families during the funeral.

The service was preceded by selections from J.S. Bach, Johann Pachelbel and Sir Edward Elgar, then opened with Britain's national anthem, "God Save the Queen."

Then, as the choir sang, eight Welsh Guards slowly carried Diana's coffin on their shoulders up the nave and placed it on a catafalque surrounded by four burning candles.

The five men who followed the funeral cortege into the abbey -- Earl Spencer, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and young Princes William and Harry -- were all dressed in black or dark gray, except for Charles, who wore a blue suit and a black tie. They took their places next to other members of their families on red velvet chairs set on either side of the coffin.

The medieval stone church was a cacophony of color, bathed in blues and reds from the sunlight shining through stained-glass windows. The catafalque was draped in blue, and the coffin itself was covered with a gold and red royal standard and topped with three bouquets of white flowers.

Wreaths of white lilies were presented to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, who placed them at the base of the coffin. The flowers echoed the official colors of the funeral: green representing the life cycle, white for celebration and thanksgiving for Diana's life.

After the call to worship by Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, the congregation sang Diana's favorite hymn, "I Vow to Thee, My Country." Diana loved music of all types, and the service continued with a passage from Verdi's Requiem led by English soprano Lynne Dawson and the BBC singers.

There were no trumpets or fanfares. Although Westminster Abbey has been the church of English kings and queens since 1560, this service did not have the formal flourishes of a state funeral, such as Lord Mountbatten's in 1979.

Instead, it was designed to reflect the princess's place in the royal family and her emotional openness and compassion for others. Both of Diana's sisters stood at the altar to recite poetry: Lady Sarah McCorquodale read "Turn Again to Life" by Mary Lee Hall, and Lady Jane Fellowes followed with another work:


Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love, time is eternity.
Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a moving reading of 1 Corinthians 13, the famous biblical passage on love, which swept the congregation back 16 years: The passage had been read at Diana's wedding to Charles in 1981. At the end of the reading, the Prince of Wales took out a handkerchief and wiped his face.

Then it was Elton John's turn to serenade his dear friend. John's own black grand piano was moved into the nave so he could perform a special rendition of his pop hit "Candle in the Wind," originally written about Marilyn Monroe.

The singer had memorized new lyrics adapted in honor of the princess. His voice was clear, but others in the abbey grew tearful at the first words of the new song: "Goodbye England's rose . . ." Both of the young princes wept.

But the most striking moments of the funeral came in Earl Spencer's loving but furious tribute to his sister. The Spencer family has been in the limelight for years -- the divorce of Diana's parents was a big newspaper story in the 1960s -- and Diana's younger brother has made no secret of his hatred for the media. Church officials feared he might use this occasion to vent his anger.

The first indication that this would be no ordinary eulogy came when Spencer called his sister "the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty . . . who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic." This was a direct slap at the royal family for stripping Diana of the title "Her Royal Highness" after her divorce.

Spencer warned that to elevate Diana to sainthood would be a disservice to her humanity: The way she overcame her great insecurity was to reach out and help others.

He then launched into a bitter denunciation of the media and its constant dissection of his sister and her actions: "My own, and only, explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum."

It was only at the end of his speech that Spencer, reading from notes, struggled to keep his composure. "Above all, we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister -- the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana, whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds."

The congregation sat in silence. The public outside, watching on video screens, began a thunderous ovation. As the sound seeped into the abbey, one person in the back began to clap, and then a flood of emotion and applause swelled through the historic church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, returned the service to the traditional with prayers for Diana, the Spencers and the royal family. There were also prayers for Dodi Fayed and the driver, Henri Paul, who both died with Diana in the crash last week. The prayers concluded in memory of her works, and for all those who would follow Diana's example of compassion and commitment.

The service ended with the Lord's Prayer and the Commendation, which placed Diana's soul into the hands of God.

The Welsh Guardsmen eased the coffin back onto their shoulders and walked very slowly down the nave to the mournful strains of John Taverner's settings of excerpts from "Hamlet" and the Orthodox Funeral Service.

The cortege stopped near the Great West Door for the national minute of silence. Not a sound was heard until the bells of Westminster began at 12:07 p.m.

The bells were muffled; one half of each clapper was swathed in leather. As the bells swung from side to side, each unwrapped half rang with a clear, true chime that represented Diana's life. The other half hit with a soft, muted sound -- a symbol of her death.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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