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The Last Parade: So Slow, So Somber, So Silent

Mournful march
Behind gun carriage bearing Diana's coffin were, from left, her former father-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh; son Prince William; brother, Earl Spencer; son Prince Harry; and former husband, Prince Charles. (British Army Photo)
By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A23

LONDON, Sept. 6—Under a clear sky, over historic pavements, through a stilled city, the coffin bearing Diana, Princess of Wales, passed by the throngs of mourners gathered to weep, throw flowers and say goodbye.

The three-mile journey was begun by a poignant company of a few soldiers marching slowly beside a horse-drawn carriage. Later, several hundred representatives of Diana's many charities joined in, following behind.

And when the sad procession passed St. James's Palace, two-thirds of the way to Westminster Abbey, Prince William and Prince Harry stepped behind their mother's coffin. As they did so, a single balloon floated over the boys' bowed heads. The pink foil heart soared up through the trees, growing smaller as it drifted toward heaven.

The heart vanished in the wind, but the love of the crowd stayed with the boys, carrying them on their sorrowful journey. Sunlight revealed the shadows beneath William's eyes, and Harry looked tinier than ever in a miniature man's black suit.

It seemed only yesterday that these were little boys in their mother's arms. But her sudden death has turned the world's attention on them for a first, really focused look. Sooner than he might have wished, and under far more terrible circumstances, William was gazed on as a possible King of England. Tall, broad-shouldered, apparently gentle and composed, he looked the dignified part.

But at the same time, the princes, ages 12 and 15, were on a journey this day that would culminate at their mother's grave. So the onlookers, standing 20 deep, wept for them as they passed.

The people stood on scattered newspapers, where they had slept the night before, their shoes grinding down pools of hardened wax from their mourning candles. They threw flowers, which fell in a silent rain around Diana's casket.

'She Was Our Queen'

In life she was a princess, but this week Diana became something more -- the people's queen, reigning in her nation's heart. And if Diana's secret lay in putting passion over protocol, forging a new kind of popular monarchy, then today's horse-drawn procession through the streets of London marked her coronation.

"She was our queen, more of a queen than anyone else could be," said Linda Gear, 52, a nurse who had traveled five hours from northern England to say farewell. As the flag-draped casket rolled past, Gear, with tears streaming from her blue eyes, waved a heart-shaped sign that read: "Goodbye Diana, Our Queen of Hearts."

"This is people power," Gear said, with the same air of defiance that marked the mood of British subjects all week. Although Diana's title was taken from her when she and Prince Charles divorced, Gear said, "We decided she's got to have `Her Royal Highness' back."

The nearly two-hour procession, a mixture of tradition and innovation, left Diana's residence at Kensington Palace shortly after 9 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT). Five mounted police led the cortege. The King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, pulled the gun carriage; a dozen Welsh Guards, wearing bearskin hats and red jackets, flanked the casket. Three wreaths of white flowers adorned the casket, their petals trembling with each jolt of the carriage wheels. There was a pile of white lilies from Diana's brother, Earl Spencer.

The other wreaths were given by her sons. Tucked into one was a note addressed in an earnest but wobbly hand to "Mummy."

"Everyone is just hoping her spirit will live on in them," said Stephen Barlow, 30, as the princes filed by.

During most of the procession, the boys kept their heads down, occasionally glancing at their father, Prince Charles, or at their uncle, Earl Spencer, or at their grandfather, Prince Philip. Five sad nobles in dark suits, three men, one boy and one -- William, who is the living image of his dead mother -- in between, on that mysterious frontier between boy and man. It was a walk that surely aged them all.

The adults walked with chins up, eyes ahead, fists balled, much like the soldiers who marched before them. Prince Philip tried to straighten the line, but Harry, seemingly lost in thought, kept breaking stride. However, as they passed briefly into the darkness and semi-privacy of Horse Guard's arch, near the end of the route, Earl Spencer draped his arm around Prince Harry, while the grandfather patted Prince William on the back.

Path of Memories

From the start of the procession at Kensington Palace, each landmark and roadway it passed evoked memories of the lost princess. The gun carriage wound past Albert Hall, where Diana recently heard Luciano Pavarotti sing at a charity concert. It rolled along Rotten Row, where Diana rode her horses. And the horses clopped down the Mall, where a 20-year-old Diana had been driven on her wedding day, glowing like a soft, heated piece of glass before it is molded.

The cortege moved at scarcely a walking pace. As it drew near to Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II, her sister, Princess Margaret, her sons Princes Andrew and Edward, and other members of the royal family broke with protocol to pay homage to the princess. As the carriage passed, the queen herself was first to bow, after which her family did the same.

The bow was not lost on Bob Broadhead, 62, a retired rugby player. "Even though Diana never could be queen officially, she represents everything a queen should be," he said.

Broadhead spoke in a soft voice, one of the few people speaking at all. The streets were packed with people, from grandmothers with clutch-purses and square-heeled shoes to young Mohawk-heads with cherry hair. And yet they were so still you could hear the jangling of bridles, the swish of horse tails, the crunch of gravel. Seconds ticked by with the hollow click of hooves, while the minutes were marked one by one with a single, funereal gong of the bell at Westminster Abbey.

Now and then grief cut into the quiet. "You're breaking my heart," a woman cried near Buckingham Palace. "We love you, Diana," a man shouted as the procession passed the Cenotaph. "Always," another voice added, and a woman sobbed.

Jeff Stockwell, 37, a businessman, had come to the Mall for Diana's fairy tale wedding. He arrived at 4 in the morning on that summer day in 1981. People were drinking beer and singing "Land of Hope and Glory." This morning, Stockwell reached the Mall at 4 a.m. once again. He found most people asleep, huddled together for warmth and, perhaps, comfort. Crumpled tissues littered the area. The white poles lining the street were bare, where colorful flags had flown on Diana's wedding day.

There were trumpets, cheers and fireworks along this road in 1981, while today there were only muffled sobs.

"It makes you think about your own mortality -- and love," said John Wainwright, 32, a store clerk. He has always resisted commitment, he said, but this week he finally proposed to his girlfriend. "You don't want to only have five weeks of happiness," he said.

He had watched the woeful procession, and now Wainwright stood hugging his new fiancee under a sky so clear that each leaf on the overhanging chestnut tree was etched into the blue. Diana's death, he said, gave him clarity of thought, the kind that sometimes comes with tragedy.

This is not the story of a fairy tale princess -- unless of a sleeping beauty, who awakens in people's hearts.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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