A Farewell to the 'People's Princess'
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A01
LONDON, Sept. 6—In precedent-shattering ceremonies that were at once sorrowful and uplifting, Diana, Princess of Wales, was remembered today as a woman of "natural nobility" whose life of compassion and style transcended sometimes abusive press coverage and even the royal family itself. Later she was laid to rest on her family's estate, concluding one of the most extraordinary weeks in the modern history of Britain.
Diana's flag-draped coffin, resplendent in the summer sun and topped with three wreaths -- one carrying the simple notation "Mummy" -- was carried this morning from the gates of Kensington Palace through the streets of central London in a silent, solemn 105-minute procession to the doors of Westminster Abbey, the historic burial place of British monarchs.
The ceremonies brought out one of the largest crowds in London since the end of World War II. More than a million people filled the streets, squares and parks to watch the procession and the funeral, which was beamed onto two gigantic screens in Hyde Park.
Just past its midpoint, the cortege was joined by Diana's two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, along with their father, Prince Charles, Diana's former husband and heir to the British throne; their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh; and their uncle and Diana's brother, the Earl Spencer. With heads bowed, they accompanied the coffin to the abbey.
There Spencer delivered a barbed and biting tribute to the late princess, who died in an automobile accident in Paris last Sunday. Spencer castigated the media and warned the royal family that Diana's family will make sure her two sons continue to be raised with the openness and spirit she wanted.
His tribute came moments after the emotional high point of the day, a grieving rendition by singer Elton John of a specially adapted version of his song, "Candle in the Wind."
Diana's two sons were the focus of attention throughout the day. All week, palace officials had held open the possibility that neither son would walk behind his mother's coffin if he were not emotionally up to it. But this morning, they were ready. William, 15, the next in line for the throne after his father, walked with military precision on the painful journey. Harry, 12, who had appeared animated on Friday as he and his brother mingled with mourners, walked a quarter pace ahead of the others for part of the route in obvious pain.
At the request of William, a student at the elite Eton school, the first hymn sung during the service at Westminster Abbey was "I Vow to Thee, My Country," a favorite of Diana's from her own school days. Both boys appeared visibly moved as Spencer turned to them and said, "How great your suffering is, we cannot even imagine."
This was a day for grieving, and it capped a week-long outpouring of emotion that exposed a side of Britain the world has rarely seen. The powerful expressions of sentiment forced the royal family to break protocol, bend its schedules, display its emotions in public and contemplate its future in a country that appears hungry for a monarchy that displays the open and fresh style Diana's life embodied.
Queen Elizabeth II had asked the nation in a televised address on Friday to grieve as one today, and in many ways the people responded. Mourners wept openly. Couples hugged each other and tried to suppress their tears. A young man in faded jeans wiped away a tear with a small Union Jack as he walked away after the service.
But in his tribute to Diana, Spencer reopened some of the issues that have been debated all week and showed that even on a day reserved to bury Diana, the controversies that came in the wake of her death may not soon disappear.
In his blunt tribute, Spencer described his sister as "the most hunted person of the modern age" and vowed to protect her sons from the "ever-present paparazzi," part of a media pack he said were at the "opposite end of the moral spectrum" from his sister.
He said that while his sister suffered from lifelong insecurities, she was the "essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty." She was, he said, "a truly British girl who transcended nationality," a woman with "a natural nobility who was classless, who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic."
That was a reference to the fact that when she was divorced from Prince Charles a year ago, she was denied the honorific "Her Royal Highness" that she had used since their marriage in 1981.
Spencer closed with a statement pointed at the royal family that gave validity to reports of tensions between the Spencers and the House of Windsor. He promised William and Harry that Diana's "blood family" will make certain the boys are raised the way their mother had wanted. Their souls, he said, should be allowed to "sing openly" and not be "simply immersed by duty and tradition."
When he finished, an enormous wave of applause began outside in the streets among the waiting crowd and quickly washed its way through the invited audience inside the abbey. It was yet another example of the public mood driving the establishment's reaction in the wake of Diana's death.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered along the 77-mile route followed by the hearse that carried Diana's body from the abbey to the Spencer family estate of Althorp, where she was buried in a private service on an ornamental island in the middle of a small lake.
As the hearse slowly made its way along one of Britain's major highways, mourners tossed so many flowers that the driver repeatedly used his windshield wipers to clear his view.
Prince Charles and his two sons traveled to Althorp aboard a special royal train, joined by Spencer and Diana's two sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes. Queen Elizabeth returned to Scotland immediately after the funeral.
The funeral ceremonies also drew a huge worldwide audience, with one estimate that as many as 2.5 billion people in 187 countries might tune in to watch the procession and funeral. The size of the potential audience underscored how deeply Diana's death, in an accident that also claimed the lives of her companion, Dodi Fayed, and their chauffeur, had touched people of all nationalities and classes.
Throughout Britain, stores and shops closed for all or part of the day to commemorate the late princess. Shop windows were adorned with pictures and portraits of Diana. An Italian movie crew was forced to stop filming at a local restaurant so as not to offend people who objected to the activity continuing while the procession and funeral were underway.
This was a day in which protocol went out the window, with no greater symbol than the flagpole above Buckingham Palace, which for the first time ever flew the Union Jack at half-staff. All week the palace's bare flagpole had been a symbol of what many mourners called the indifference of the royal family. Protocol dictates that only the royal standard flies over Buckingham, and only when the monarch is in residence. With the royal family grieving at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the palace's flagpole remained empty.
But on Thursday, in reaction to the demands of the public, the queen ordered that, upon her departure for the funeral today, the royal standard over Buckingham be replaced by the Union Jack and that it be lowered to half-staff. It was to remain there until midnight tonight.
The queen, who addressed the nation in a rare live television appearance Friday afternoon, took another step away from tradition in an effort to show the nation a more human and humane monarchy today. As Diana's coffin rolled down Constitution Hill past Buckingham Palace, the queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the royal family lined up on the sidewalk outside the palace and bowed their heads in a show of respect.
The funeral procession also contained elements that represented a break with tradition. Diana's coffin was carried on a military gun carriage and accompanied by a military guard, but there were no other military touches.
As it passed St. James's Palace, where the coffin had rested in private all week, the cortege was joined by Charles, William, Harry, Spencer and the Duke of Edinburgh. At that point, representatives of 100 charities with which the late princess had been associated fell in behind. Some dressed in T-shirts, others using wheelchairs pushed by their comrades, the charity contingent brought a look and feel to the cortege strikingly different from the traditional state affairs of the past.
For all the breaking with tradition, however, no member of the royal family spoke publicly at the funeral. Other than laying a wreath at the foot of the catafalque in the abbey, members of the royal family were spectators at today's service. It was reported earlier that Charles felt that, because of his divorce from Diana a year ago, he should not speak at the service.
The 1,900 invited guests at the abbey service included first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who praised Diana's "courage, perseverance and loving kindness" and said her memory could best be honored by "bringing care and comfort to the afflicted" and carrying on the causes for which Diana had worked. "Today the shadows are longer because we have lost a light that shined brightly and gently, and we will miss her," the first lady said.
Other guests included Mohamed Fayed, the father of Dodi Fayed, and his wife; former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major; Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president; former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and his wife, Nancy; Queen Noor of Jordan; actors Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise; director Steven Spielberg; actress Nicole Kidman, and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, also were among the invited guests, and the new prime minister delivered an emotional scripture reading during the service. It was the second time this week that Blair has given public voice to the emotions of the nation. Last Sunday morning, he delivered a brief statement of reaction to the news of Diana's death, and in describing her as a "people's princess" he seemed to capture the public mood even before it had shown itself to the world.
On the streets of London, a remarkable cross section of society joined to say goodbye to Diana. Many were dressed in black, some in handsome suits or dresses. Others were as informal as a crowd at a rock concert or a sporting event. A young woman with red, punk hair stood silently near a couple in black.
The mourners had begun arriving on Friday. Charlotte Michielsen woke up this morning in Hyde Park wrapped in a silver space blanket distributed by emergency workers. She and a friend had been in the park since Friday afternoon. "The atmosphere is so unique now," she said. "You can feel the silence and the feelings of the people."
Larry and Pat Gargan got on the train at 6 a.m. today in Newcastle and arrived in London as the funeral cortege was leaving Kensington Palace. Carrying two large bouquets made up at Pat's floral shop, they watched the coffin pass through Wellington Arch about 10 a.m. "I think she was in touch with the '90s," Larry Gargan said. "Young people need a role model to look up to, and she definitely was one."
Although today's events were shorn of most military touches, they were carried off with military precision in the best British tradition. Precisely at 9:08 a.m. (4:08 a.m. EDT), the cortege began to roll away from Kensington Palace, where the coffin had been carried on Friday night as tens of thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil.
The cortege moved forward in a silence that was broken only by the tolling of the tenor bell at the abbey, which pealed every minute along the route, and by the sound of horses' hooves on the asphalt pavement.
"I can't express it in words," said Kim Taylor, who carried a single white rose as she watched the procession today. "There's never been anything like it. It's very, very sad. It's just too sad for words."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company