At Cathedral and Embassy, Some Surprised at Sadness
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A27
They arose, some surprised at themselves, to cry in the sad morning dark at the glowing images of a funeral 3,600 miles away. They came, unexpectedly compelled, to lay flowers by the British Embassy or to mourn with other strangers in Washington National Cathedral.
Washington joined the grieving for Diana, Princess of Wales, answering a feeling of loss that for many had settled darkly and inexplicably over them all week.
"This isn't anything I would ever expect to do in my life. I would never expect to cry over this," said Neil Sturomski, 45, who walked up from Dupont Circle to stand in line at the British Embassy yesterday morning to sign the book of condolence.
"I never met her, it's true," said his friend Clair Sassin, 37, her eyes red from crying since she awoke at 4 a.m. to watch the funeral televised from London. "Even though she was glamorous and famous, she was also ordinary. There isn't a person who couldn't relate to something she had gone through."
In formal and intimate ways, those in the Washington area expressed their sorrow as Princess Diana was buried in England yesterday.
Flames from memorial candles flickered on homemade sympathy cards at the British Embassy. The bells at the cathedral offered a muffled peal. And a neighbor of Englishwoman Debbie Johnson, who now lives in Loudoun County with her American husband, offered Johnson a bouquet of flowers "because she knew how I must be feeling."
"Who could have imagined the magnitude, the depth of admiration and affection?" asked the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, who delivered the homily at the ceremony at the cathedral, where he is dean. "Something about this woman and her life touched us more deeply than we knew."
About 2,200 people came to the cathedral, a church with soaring lines that quietly echo the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, where Diana's casket had lain six hours before.
"So many people spoke of her `touching,' " Baxter said. "She touched the mutilated land mine victim; she embraced the homeless person and the woman fighting breast cancer. None of us will forget her sitting on the floor of Grandma's House, a home in Washington for children with HIV or AIDS, holding that beautiful black child in her arms.
"I will always be haunted by the memory of that child clinging to the tenderness she felt in Diana," Baxter said. "She wouldn't let go."
Outside, others evoked similar images of the glamorous but vulnerable princess with the common appeal.
"She was so different from the British royal family, always distant and aloof. She reached out and touched and hugged people, whether they had AIDS or leprosy. And I think it touched all of us," said Linda Pape, 46, a high school teacher from Newport News, Va., who arrived at 3:45 a.m. and stood all morning, wrapped in a shawl, to be first in line at the service.
"Ever since I watched Diana's wedding when I was 11, I grew up living her fairy tale. I feel so terrible now that the fairy tale has crumbled," said Jenny White, 27, a nanny from Bethesda, who arrived four hours before the iron cathedral gates opened just before noon.
"People took for granted that she would always be on the cover of People. They didn't focus on all the good she did," White said. "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."
At the service, Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post, delivered a tribute to a woman whom she described as refreshingly candid and who became a friend. Graham mentioned obliquely the controversy that has surrounded the media since Diana's death in front of a motorcycle squad of photographers, an issue laid out with bitterness by Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, at her service in London yesterday.
"This tragedy need not and should not have happened," Graham said. "The world should not have had to suffer this loss."
The cathedral was not full yesterday; as in Britain, the people determined the ritual of remembrance, and for many the British Embassy was a more natural and personal altar for their sentiments.
For some, it was a spontaneous pilgrimage. The week of torrential Diana coverage had made little impact on Derrick Parks, of Fredericksburg, Va. "Being African American, this doesn't touch us as much," he said.
But yesterday morning, as Parks, 36, was getting ready to go to work as a quality control inspector at an asphalt plant, he saw the television coverage of princes Harry and William walking behind their mother's coffin. He thought of his two young daughters and how they would feel if he had been in that crash.
"It took everything I had to hold back tears," said Parks, who decided to drive to the British Embassy. "This is beyond the color barrier. For stuff like this, we have to come together as one."
Last evening, more than 80 people gathered at the Gospel Mission in downtown Washington for what organizers called a black tribute to Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.
"Diana focused on so many problems prevalent in the black community -- AIDS, homelessness, poverty," said Rocky Twyman, music director of the Capitol Hill Chorale and an organizer of the tribute.
"She was a person who embraced people. . . . Race was not important to her," said Glenn Simmons, chaplain of the mission.
Yesterday morning, television gathered in those here to the immediacy of Britain's grief.
About 6 a.m., Jacquie and Bob Alvord brought a red candle and a single red rose from their Cleveland Park garden to add to the growing pile outside the embassy's Massachusetts Avenue gates. "To watch her blossom from all the sadness has been such a real inspiration. That's why I wanted to be here" as the funeral service got underway, Jacquie Alvord said.
"It takes the funeral cortege to bring you back to reality," Bob Alvord said. "All week long on television, you see pictures of her with her children, you see her with Mother Teresa. It's like she's still doing her thing."
Dressed in surgical scrubs and yawning from 12 hours of caring for newborn babies, registered nurse Madelaine Jestice had come straight to the embassy from Columbia Hospital for Women, rather than going home to Manassas for much-needed sleep.
"I just wanted to pay my respect," she said. "She was like a fairy tale. She was [what] every little girl wants to grow up to be."
Washington's international character also was evident yesterday, as Britons came to the embassy and the cathedral to share by long distance their nation's grief.
"I was up all night sitting there with the `loo' roll, mopping up my tears," said Londoner Janet Smith, 30, who is living in Loudoun County while she works on an American-British business merger.
"Americans are really a feeling people," Smith said. "I think perhaps [the funeral] has been a bit more Americanized. We are much more able to express our grief than we would have in England a generation ago."
Linda Grace, 45, an English contract consultant living in Alexandria, said: "A lot of things seem to wash over America because it's so big. I'm a little surprised she had touched the hearts of so many people here. Those I've talked to seem to have been moved, and they don't really understand why."
London-born Christine Gehring, who lives in Wooster, Ohio, drove nine hours with her husband and 2-year-old son to come to the British Embassy. "I would have liked to be in England, but this is the closest that I could get," she said.
Several local mourners said they had briefly met Diana, including a teacher at Gallaudet University who described watching her once enter a meeting of the British Deaf Association, of which she had been a patron.
"Her smile lit up the room," said David Martin, 60, of Washington. "She had taken the trouble to learn British sign language, and she immediately went over and mingled with the deaf people there, signing and welcoming them."
When Diana visited Grandma's House in 1990, "it was an enchanting and almost holy presence," said Debbie Tate, president of the charity, which operates five homes for children.
"Not only did she come in and hold a baby, she came at a time when there was a lot of prejudice and fear" about AIDS, Tate said. "She used her moment in time so responsibly to sensitize the whole world."
Staff writers Pamela Constable, Hamil R. Harris and Brooke A. Masters contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company