September 7, 1997 in Nation/World

A Vale Of Tears Diana’s Slow Final Passage Through Gantlet Of Grief

Fawn Vrazo, Michael Vitez, Jeffrey Fleishman Knight-Ridder
 
Tags:eulogy

Past palaces and parks, past royals and commoners, past mourners in black silk and black cotton, Princess Diana made her final journey into history Saturday as six bay horses pulled her coffin and her two young sons walked behind.

It was the incredible end to a searing, incredible week. An estimated one million street mourners in London, plus billions more watching on televisions around the world, paid final homage to Diana, the Princess of Wales and the queen of people’s hearts, as she was laid to rest in a funeral both grand and bitter.

Some came at dawn, trudging across dewy lawns to the wail of bagpipes. Others awoke in sleeping bags and tents, pouring coffee and chasing the chill from the air. They grew to hundreds of thousands, their lines growing wide and deep until they were connected elbow-to-elbow, front-to-back.

As the sun lifted, glistening across Big Ben and burnished copper domes, they whispered about her, carried her pictures, remembered her grace. Many stood on milk crates and creaky chairs in precisely the same spots where, 16 years earlier, they had waved to a shy, young bride in a royal coach.

They waited again Saturday for that same princess.

At 9:07 a boot clicked.

The spoked wheels rolled.

The gun carriage shimmied and Princess Diana - in a wooden coffin topped with white lilies - began her procession from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, past women who envied and loved her and men who folded her in their dreams.

Even Queen Elizabeth II bowed her head - lowering it deeply as Diana’s coffin passed Buckingham Palace on its way to the sweeping memorial at Westminster Abbey. The bow was an unprecedented gesture of respect from the queen, at once acknowledging her former daughter-in-law’s glittering life as well as the deep grief of her nation, whose sadness over Diana’s death in a Paris car crash a week ago has been immeasurable.

But it was left to Diana’s younger brother Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, to deliver the poignant, powerful and angry words that captured both his sister’s triumphs and her tragedies.

In a tribute that will long be remembered as one of the frankest speeches ever delivered at a historic funeral, Spencer praised his 36-year-old sister as “the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity, a standard-bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality, someone with a natural nobility who was classless.”

Then, in a sharp public rebuke to a royal family that had stripped Diana of her title of Her Royal Highness after her acrimonious divorce a year ago from Prince Charles, Spencer noted that she “proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”

He castigated a British media he said had “sneered” at her many charitable efforts, and he lashed out at paparazzi photographers who “used regularly to drive (her) to tearful despair.” They made her the ironic reverse of the hunter-goddess Diana, “the most hunted person of the modern age,” he said.

At the end of Spencer’s tribute, which was broadcast on loudspeakers to the many thousands standing outside the abbey and in Hyde Park, there was the spontaneous outbreak of applause - beginning first among mourners on the streets and then rolling through the 1,900 invited guests inside the stately abbey itself.

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.”

The piano echoed through the vast, cross-shaped abbey as sunlight beamed down on it from the massive round stained-glass window of many colors. The strains of the tender ballad - “Goodbye England’s rose; may you ever grow in our hearts. You were the grace that placed itself where lives where torn apart …” - unleashed a flood of tears. William and Harry, who until then had kept their emotions in check, cried, as did many in the church and thousands in the huge throng outside.

Many mourners had earlier sought perches along The Mall, a wide, grand boulevard shaded by a canopy of maple trees just beyond Buckingham Palace, two-thirds of the way along the three-mile funeral route. They came here because not only would the princess pass by, but perhaps her sons as well, “those poor, poor boys,” as one frail grandmother called them.

Breezes rattled leaves tinged with autumn brown, and every minute, a lone bell tolled from Westminster Abbey. The crowd hushed, people stood on tip-toes and craned their necks. In the distance, there was a flash of red, a gold braid.

“There’s a red hat, yes, more red hats, they’re coming,” yelled a man on a milk crate. The crowd pushed in, children were lifted toward the sky, but still most could not see. From the distance came the clop, clop of six chestnut-colored steeds. “I can see the coffin!” the man shouted.

Slowly, the white lilies appeared - then a white envelope from young Prince Harry reading simply and heartbreakingly, “Mummy” - then the Royal Standard shrouding the coffin, then the honor guard, stern as steel, and then, walking with their father, Prince Charles, came Diana’s two sons, Harry and William.

The crowd held its breath.

Thousands bowed and wept.

Even though they had waited all night, all week, many simply were not prepared. Throngs ran to keep pace with the coffin. It was the boys - Harry in a blue suit and William, the image of his mother, dressed in charcoal gray - that held the soul of a nation. The princes never looked up; they merely walked along, eyes on the pavement, hands cuffed around their sleeves.

Then came 500 representatives of Diana’s favorite charities, young and old, in wheelchairs and with canes, blacks and whites.

When the cortege finally had passed, the crowd seemed to breathe again as tears dripped from behind sunglasses and children waved goodbye.

“I want her back,” sobbed Charmain James, 25, a grocery store checker from Kent, collapsing into the shoulder of her husband, Kevin. “Can’t we bring her back?”

He stroked her hair.

“Words don’t say nothing about this day,” Paul Newton-Rolfe said as he fixed his slim, black tie and buttoned his checkered blazer. “You’re just not looking at one nation here, you’re looking at the world. All we know is that we lost a sacred woman. She didn’t do miracles. She just showed her true colors, and they were beautiful.”

As the funeral cortege approached the abbey, an estimated crowd of one million, far lower than the potential crowd of six million estimated earlier by British police, fell silent.

All that could be heard were the clip-clop of the hooves of the horses drawing the coffin, the occasional barking of pet dogs, and the cries of babies. Nearer to the abbey, mourners could hear the solemn chiming of a single Westminster Abbey bell, ringing every 60 seconds without fail, as if marking the inexorable passage of human life itself.

“I’ve never been in such a crowd where it’s so quiet,” said Kath Phillips, 65, who came in that morning by train from Surrey. “It’s a nation’s grief. I don’t think you get anything like this in the world.”

When the service ended at about noon (4 a.m. PDT), mourners throughout London observed a national moment of silence. Only the breeze would not be stilled. And when the bells of Westminster Abbey signaled the end to the silence, the crowds in the park and along the road would not obey. They remained solemn, still, until the coffin, placed inside a hearse for the 70-mile trip to Diana’s childhood home for burial, passed by them again.

Women threw flowers, children tugged at their parents’ hips, and, as in life, Diana passed with flashes bursting from hundreds of cameras. By the time the hearse reached the outskirts of London on its way to the island grave in Althorp, the hood and roof were covered with flowers and the driver had to stop and scoop them off the windshield.

“I’m just numb,” said Robert Newcombe, 30, who had spent the night along The Mall. “I’ve never had a feeling like this before. So overwhelming. So quiet. I’ll never forget this day. Ever.”


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