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A New Britain Mourns Its Loss In a New Manner

Hearse travels through London
The hearse carrying Diana's remains makes its way to a private burial at Althorp, watched by thousands of people gathered along the funeral route. (Reuter)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 1997;
Page A01

LONDON, Sept. 6—As the hour of Princess Diana's funeral services neared, a huge crowd gathered in Hyde Park to watch the event on giant video screens -- a sea of people, hundreds of thousands strong, wearing jeans and pullovers, toting backpacks and blankets, swigging bottles of water and fruit juice. From a distance it looked almost like a rock concert, almost like a celebration rather than an exercise in mourning.

At the same time, just blocks away, the entire British royal family was filing out of Buckingham Palace to salute Diana's cortege. It was an unexpected tribute, one of several departures from ordinary protocol that Queen Elizabeth II has ordered in this extraordinary week. The royals, all lined up in a row, were somber in funereal black; as the casket passed, the queen and others bowed their heads.

The people mourning in their way, the royals in theirs: two moments that stood out on a day in which Diana's life and death became a kind of touchstone by which modern Britain took its own measure.

There was pomp and tradition of the kind that Britain and the world have come to expect on these grand occasions of state. But there was no sense of isolation from the sorrows and joys of the real world, no sense of living a fairy tale. Diana, who had stepped onto the world stage 16 years ago in a glittering royal wedding that offered pure fantasy and escape, left it on a day when AIDS, leprosy and land mines were mentioned from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey, a day when royalty bowed to the wishes of its subjects.

The most memorable actors in today's events were an embittered brother who spoke his mind, a saddened rock star who sang an elegy, a chastened monarch who tried something new and a vast public that boldly commandeered the day as its own, firmly relegating the royals to a secondary role.

"I don't think anyone will forget this week, especially the queen," Douglas Kay, a biographer of Elizabeth, said in a televised interview. "There is no doubt that this week will change the way the monarchy is portrayed and the way the royal family portrays itself."

The people began to seize the day long before dawn, as crowds began to form all along the four-mile route from Kensington Palace, where Diana's body lay Friday night, to Westminster Abbey. There were people of all description, but one group that seemed to be overrepresented was young women -- people like Nina Jackson, a 24-year-old office worker from Leeds in the north of England.

"We just decided last night to come down," said Jackson, who had traveled to London with her friend Gemma Armstead, 22. "I think Princess Diana's death is just something that has affected everybody. We've come today because we think we probably won't see something as big as this again in our lifetimes."

Like the vast majority of those filling the streets today, neither woman had met Diana. Yet both said they felt they had a personal relationship with her -- something they didn't feel, Jackson said pointedly, about the rest of the royal family. "She was the only one of the royals you could relate to," she said. And like a considerable number of people in the crowd, Jackson was unimpressed by the queen's televised speech Friday evening, in which she had sought to blunt days of sharp criticism of the royal family's remoteness with a personal tribute to Diana.

"I think she just felt like she had to do it," Jackson said of the queen's three-minute talk. "It there had been less of an uproar, she wouldn't have bothered. I think she was pushed into it."

At Hyde Park Corner, where a big concentration of people was forming, volunteer stewards were giving directions to out-of-towners and passing out little packages of tissues to daub anticipated tears.

As the funeral cortege pulled out of Kensington Palace, mourners in the crowd began wailing. "We love you, Diana!" a woman moaned. "Bless you! Bless you!" It was not an example of traditional British reserve -- but then, if the events of the past week have taught Britain anything, it is that the country is amply capable of unabashed emotion. It has been a week of naked sentiment.

Crowds that were 20-deep in places lined the route. Many had come bearing flowers to add to the displays in Diana's honor at Buckingham and St. James's palaces; the most common choice was white lilies, Diana's favorite.

The scene at Buckingham Palace was an innovation from a queen who suddenly seems willing to break with tradition, if that is what the people want. All week long, the queen and the rest of the family had been attacked for their stoic -- some critics said cold -- reaction to Diana's death. Since Thursday night, the royals have been trying hard to show Britons that they too are grieving. The image was there for all to see: the royals, standing there on the street, just like the multitudes.

But on a day that belonged to those multitudes, that image of the royals was all but lost. Apparently at the wish of Diana's family, the royal family had essentially no role in today's funeral. Diana had been a royal princess -- at least until the queen stripped her of her "Royal Highness" title after her divorce from Prince Charles -- but today the House of Windsor seemed almost superfluous.

Halfway down the Mall, when hundreds of representatives from the charities Diana patronized joined the procession, the solemn little parade of horses and riders and soldiers in uniform, suitable for a woman who was born into Britain's nobility and married into its royal family, was suddenly transformed. There were people with AIDS, victims of land mines, advocates for causes like homelessness. From that point on, the cortege seemed to be more about social and political activism -- and, with Diana's two young sons also marching, a missing mother -- than about royal ceremony.

At Westminster Abbey, after singer Elton John had left the 2,000 mourners in tears with his special version of "Candle in the Wind," Diana's brother, the ninth Earl Spencer, left them electrified with his tribute to Diana in which he bitterly attacked the press, saying they had made his sister "the most hunted person of the modern age." No one seemed to know quite how to react to Spencer's swipe at the queen for taking away Diana's title, or his warning to the royal family that he and the public will be watching how they raise Princes William and Harry.

Everyone sat quietly. Then the crowds standing outside began applauding, and gradually a wave of applause swept through the abbey. No one could remember an earlier occasion when applause had been heard at a royal funeral. The people, an unruly new Britain that tends to speak its mind, had intruded.

Applause came much more easily, and seemed much more natural, in Hyde Park, where the largest crowd of the day was assembled to watch and hear the funeral on towering screens. There were people literally as far as the eye could see, sitting on the ground or standing casually -- a crowd that seemed younger and more diverse than Britain as a whole. The ceremonies inside historic Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens have been eulogized for hundreds of years, constituted Diana's official funeral. The gathering in Hyde Park was the people's funeral for the woman Prime Minister Tony Blair had called "the people's princess."

The mood was respectful, and at times quite tearful, but never somber. The glorious weather might have had something to do with that, but there also seemed to be a determination to honor Diana's life, not just to lament her passing. It was almost like being at an outdoor concert, except that the crowd, like all of Diana's crowds this week, was very nearly silent.

"It's very quiet, isn't it?" said Nick Blyth, 24, an accountant who lives in Surrey. "All these thousands of people, and it's so quiet and hushed."

The throngs in Hyde Park cried when they heard Elton John sing. They clapped for Spencer, especially when he said that Diana hadn't needed a royal title to be special. They stood in unison to say the Lord's Prayer.

They knew Diana.

"I never met her, other than seeing her on the telly and in the paper every day," said Tony Edwards, 40, a supervisor in the London subway who took a day off without pay to come to Hyde Park. "It's just that sitting there at home and realizing all the work she's done for charity, all the good she's done, I had to come here today. She had the courage to do all that she did. She was sent by God."

Edwards, like many in the crowd, had a black ribbon pinned to his lapel in Diana's honor.

During the moment of silence at the end of the service, the only sounds in Hyde Park were the whisper of distant traffic and the crying of a baby. Someone released three red heart-shaped balloons that climbed on the breeze and then were gone.

The hearse that carried Diana's body from Westminster Abbey to her burial at the Spencer family estate in Northamptonshire retraced some of the steps of the cortege before turning off into residential neighborhoods of north London. Solid crowds lined the streets, thick crowds that sometimes applauded when the body passed.

The crowds tossed flowers at the hearse, so many that the driver had to keep turning on his windshield wipers so he could see where he was going.

There were load bars built into the roof, and some of the wreaths and bouquets became wedged against them and stuck, and then more became stuck, and eventually the hearse wore a crown of lilies.

Said one television commentator, "That is the people's wreath."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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