Sarah Fayrfax and Joanne Russell, two young teachers, sat quietly in Hyde Park on Saturday after catching their last glimpse of the hearse bearing the coffin of Princess Diana to its burial site in the English countryside.
Like millions of people in this country, they were trying without much success to grasp the vastness of what Diana’s death touched off here. “It’s very emotional,” Fayrfax said. “You can’t describe the emotion. It’s too raw.”
This is a nation still in shock and wondering what comes next. The first shock came with the news of Diana’s death a week ago, prompting a sense of individual loss that brought hundreds of thousands of mourners into the streets. The second was a seismic shock that continues to reverberate, the collective statement by a country suddenly in transition.
It has been dubbed “the floral revolution,” after the flowers that continued to pile up outside Kensington Palace and elsewhere Sunday - a cry for a new Britain that has put the leaders of this country and its leading institutions on notice.
Like the individual grief many people are experiencing, the sentiment for a new Britain is still too raw to refine into a clear direction. But few people here doubt that the response to Diana’s death will continue to produce changes.
“This feeling has got to be fed,” said Rita Rosato, who, with her husband, John, had come to Kensington Palace on Sunday afternoon to pay their respects. “A lot of this is out of our control, but others can have an effect.”
How the death of a princess shook the foundations of a country is one of the more amazing developments of the 1990s. No one foresaw it. No one knows quite where it will end - or when. It was a force of nature that grew by the day, each day’s developments more surprising.
From a few floral bouquets, it quickly mushroomed, and the television images that have been beamed around the world barely do it justice. It has been a cultural moment that is both visual and palpable.
An aerial photo taken outside Kensington Palace late in the week showed what was perhaps the most arresting image of the week - a floral display of hundreds of thousands of bouquets flowing from the palace gates into an enormous cross of grief. It was a weight that finally forced the barren flagpole at Buckingham Palace to bend, when Queen Elizabeth II shattered protocol by agreeing to fly a flag at half-staff over her palace - not the Royal Standard that flies when she is in residence, but the Union Jack, which never has flown at the palace at full- or half-staff.
But images were only part of the mood that shook the establishment. It also was the quiet dignity and unmistakable anger of the mourners. It was the friendships that developed along the lines of people waiting as many as 12 hours to sign the official books of condolence at St. James’s Palace. It was the applause for Earl Spencer’s electric eulogy for his sister at Saturday’s funeral that began with the people outside and forced its way into Westminster Abbey.
The overnight vigils outside the palaces, with mourners holding candles and huddled against the cold, were religious and spiritual. But the fury aimed at the monarchy and the royal family was equally heartfelt by people bewildered at what they were seeing and not seeing. Their words of displeasure were direct and shocking in a nation where reserve and respect for authority are in the blood.
To walk among the crowds of people - some drawn out of grief, others attracted by the uniqueness of the event - was to feel a nation coming to terms with its own history and its own future at the same moment. It was mourning mixed with anticipation, it was the desire to celebrate Diana’s life and grieve her loss in a single act. It was a powerful message calling on the leaders of the country to reflect the people’s values.
“The people are showing their feelings now,” said Violet Stanton, who, along with her son Brian, came out to see the floral tributes to Diana at Kensington Palace on Sunday.
Now, the official services are over and the leaders of the country must wrestle with the future. “I think there’s a sense in which the terms of the relationship between government and the governed has altered in the last week,” said Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.
In a television interview, Ashdown said the people were acting more as citizens than subjects. “I think they have told us the kind of society they want,” he added. “What we heard so strongly is they want a compassionate society, a fairer society, a more decent society, a more just society.”
More than anything, the week that was has put the monarchy on notice. The queen spent the week trying to catch up to her subjects and never quite succeeded. Despite an unprecedented series of bows to public opinion - from the flag to a live television address to greeting the funeral cortege at street level with the rest of the public - the queen’s reaction often was seen by the people as too little, too late.
The public now wants a monarchy more in touch with Diana’s values than the queen’s. “This whole episode of needing a change started with the election of a new government,” John Rosato said. “The old government was not in touch with the people. I am a Conservative, but I agreed. The same is true with the queen. She’s lost touch with the people.”
The government faces its own challenge. Prime Minister Tony Blair has drawn praise for his public statements, his emotional reading from the Bible at Saturday’s funeral and his behind-the-scenes lobbying with the royal family to respond to the public mood.
Blair appears to be making every effort to appropriate Diana as part of the continuing image of his own New Labor government. But appropriating cultural icons can be tricky business for politicians, and though Blair so far has shown himself to be adroit, the next months could be more difficult as he attempts both to project Diana’s spirit while gently nudging the monarchy in a new direction.
Also on notice are the nation’s newspapers, particularly the tabloids that have drawn the anger not only of Diana’s brother, the ninth Earl Spencer, but of millions of people who share his view that the media unnecessarily hounded her. The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has said he plans to begin an inquiry into complaints about the media’s intrusion into Diana’s private life, and he will begin by holding talks with tabloid editors. The media have been chastened by the death of Diana, but whether they will change is an open question.
The death of Princess Diana has been compared often this week to the death of President John F. Kennedy, and in the outpouring of emotion, the worldwide reaction and the sense of loss, the comparisons are apt. But there is one large difference: Kennedy’s death was seen not simply as a tragic loss to the country, but as the end of a special moment in the country’s history. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at the time, “We’ll laugh again; we’ll just never be young again.”
Here there is the sense of grief, the anger at a young life snuffed out in its prime, and the end of a tragic soap opera that revolved around the lives of Diana and Charles. But more than that, there is an awakening, a sense of something yet to come, an anticipation of change that marks this as different from Kennedy’s death. It is like the blooming of a rose.