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Mourners Pay Respects at Kensington Palace

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 1997; Page C01

LONDON, Sept. 1—The slight young man slipped through the crowds at Kensington Palace carrying a large bouquet of red and yellow roses. Dropping to his knees, he gently added his flowers to the thousands piled against the palace fence and then tucked in the card: "We love you very much. You will be with us always." He lowered his head and began to pray. Within seconds, his back shook with sobs.

On this flawless summer day, a continuous stream of people poured onto the walkways leading to the red-brick palace that was Princess Diana's London residence. The grounds on the edge of Hyde Park usually close at dusk, but officials kept the park open until 2 this morning to accommodate the tens of thousands of mourners. When the grounds reopened three hours later, more than 300 people were waiting to pay their respects.

They were drawn, they said, by a need to do something, anything to show Diana how much they cared.

In their arms they carried flowers -- some extravagant arrangements, some ragged offerings from gardens. The tributes were first placed on the wrought-iron gate in front of the palace; soon, the entire fence became a shrine of bouquets, flickering candles, stuffed teddy bears and thousands of handwritten cards and letters.

Some were simple: "Diana -- I will never forget you." Some were poetic: "The Gods may take the ones they love the most but they can never take your memory from our hearts." The most poignant were written in childish scrawls: "Dear Diana -- You were a very beautiful princess. Your two boys William and Harry must be very upset. My mummy was so upset she cryed. Good luck in Heaven. Love and Happynes from Sophie."

People were quiet, almost hushed as they leaned over to read the messages. "For 17 years we have seen her in the papers and on television," said Ray Moore, who brought an oil painting of the princess as his tribute. "I'm quite hardened, but I was shocked at the grief I felt. It was like losing a member of the family."

"I know I don't really know her, but I feel stricken," said Chris Hatzar of East London. "It seems really corny to say, but I came to say goodbye."

"She showed love to people who were nothing to her," said a tearful Marian Knott, who drove more than two hours from Dover to walk along the palace fence. "She gave everything."

Throughout her years in the public spotlight, Diana forged a unique connection to the British public, unlike any other member of the royal family. "I think people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels," she said in an interview in 1995.

That bond began with her vulnerability and her attempts at normalcy. She wore her heart on her sleeve, allowing the average Englishman a new window into the closeted world of the royals. Mourners today called her a devoted mother, a playful friend, a woman who tried to save her marriage. One sign attached to the palace gate called her "a common royal, a regal commoner, our princess."

Another missive: "I loved you like my own 36-year-old daughter. You put a light into our lives which has now gone out. . . . Rest in peace, our Queen of Hearts. Beryl."

"I think Diana represented something the British people haven't seen for a long time -- a considerate, deeply caring attitude towards everybody, which cut through barriers of class, race, and age," said John Carey of South London. "She had deep respect and understanding for people who didn't have a lot -- the diseased, the dying, the disabled and the destitute."

Moore said the public outpouring of grief for Diana was partially due to a feeling that the royal family had never really appreciated her. He blamed the Paris car crash that killed her on the decision to take away Diana's title and status of "Her Royal Highness" as a condition of her divorce last year from Prince Charles. "The general public was really outraged," he said. "She lost her protection -- royal bodyguards and security. I think a great deal of blame will be placed at the royal family's doorstep."

Many saw her death as yet another blow to the monarchy. "It's a huge loss for the royal family," said Steve Westrip of South London. "Diana was their link to the 21st century."

It is these "ordinary people," as one editorial called them, who demanded that Diana deserved the highest honor in death: a state funeral. Instead, palace officials said today, special arrangements are being made for "a unique funeral for a unique person." An elaborate procession will carry her coffin from St. James's Palace to services at Westminster Abbey on Saturday. Two thousand people will be invited. Since Diana is technically no longer a royal, there was some initial question about what kind of ceremony she would receive. But from the first hours after the announcement of her death, the display of affection and grief has created overwhelming pressure for a service that reflects the public's regard for the princess.

For two days, the crowds have kept coming. The bouquets and letters continue to pile up, so many that police finally asked that only those delivering flowers step behind the barriers near the fence.

The tears did not stop. There was no laughter except for the lilt of small children. At this moment, at this place, the people could protect their princess.

"To Diana: May you rest in peace where the cameras will not find you. From a mother with two sons."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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