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PRINCESS DIANA: 1961-1997

'Unique' Rites to Lay Diana to Rest Saturday

September 02, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Two prideful patrician families agreed Monday with the British government to give Princess Diana a "unique funeral" that will combine the families' wishes for privacy with public demands to honor a woman who touched the nation's heart.

As planning advanced for the 11 a.m. Saturday ceremonies that will blend dignity and modernity--and for which huge crowds are expected and will be welcomed--Britain mourned its dead princess in a swelling wave of public grief.

Central London was convulsed, with all traffic around Buckingham Palace closed because of crowds and flowers until after the ceremonies. Tens of thousands of people, many weeping, waited in hours-long lines to sign condolence books and to lay flowers honoring the royal with the common touch. "I just felt that I had to be here," said one woman who took the day off to come to London from the countryside.

Landmarks of Diana's life and death in central London became touchstones for a spontaneous circuit of grief as a consuming sadness replaced initial shock among people for whom the slim, shy princess was a radiant national icon.

More than 50,000 mourners-- from businessmen in suits to American tourists in shorts--gathered in lines that were sometimes half a mile long outside Diana's home at Kensington Palace. Banks of flowers created a moving tribute, an instant garden of remembrance. "To the greatest queen Britain never had," read one note.

Buckingham Palace logged 1.8 million visits to its Internet condolence page, which is at www.royal.gov.uk; 60,000 wrote condolences in cyberspace.

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All day and into the night Monday, large crowds surged before the tall black palace gates bearing bouquets, sympathy notes, even a teddy bear.

Notes of farewell, flowers eight feet deep--and one bottle of champagne--filled the sidewalk outside Harrods, the landmark department store in Knightsbridge owned by the Egyptian family of Diana's companion Dodi Fayed, who died with the 36-year-old princess in a Paris car crash early Sunday.

"I will never be able to reconcile myself to the needless and cruel deaths of two people who were so vibrant, generous and full of life. God took their souls to live together in paradise," said patriarch Mohammed Fayed on Monday. Dodi, his eldest son, was buried after Sunday services at a London mosque.

The 11,000 lightbulbs that make Harrods a nighttime London spectacle will not be switched on again until after Diana's funeral. Amid calls for two minutes of national silence, many shops will be closed Saturday morning. Sporting events--cricket, rugby, horse racing--have been canceled, and so has the weekly Saturday night drawing of the National Lottery.

On a sun-dappled day that tasted of approaching autumn, patient mourners waited as long as five hours to sign condolence books at St. James' Palace, where Diana rests in a closed coffin before the altar in the 450-year-old Chapel Royal.

After its return from France on Sunday, the princess' body was ferried to the old chapel in a gleaming black hearse at 12:10 a.m. Monday.

The chapel is next to St. James' Palace, once the residence of King Henry VIII, now the London headquarters of Prince Charles and still the statutory seat of government; ambassadors to Britain are accredited to the court of St. James'.

As a concession to her own noble Spencer family and the royal Windsor family, which includes Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, the princess will not lie in state. Only relatives and close friends will pass by her bier, although the books of condolence will remain open round the clock until the funeral and afterward if necessary.

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Divorced last year from Charles, the heir to the throne, Diana lost her title "Her Royal Highness" but worked hard on good causes in hopes of becoming Britain's "queen of hearts." Thus, as a beloved national and international figure and mother of the possibly future King William, she will be laid to rest with great honor.

It will not be precisely a royal funeral, or a state funeral. Just Diana's funeral: a high-profile, creative exercise in improvisation and farewell by a nation with a great love--and a great genius--for ritual.

"It will be a ceremonial funeral with an escort of Horse Guards, and the coffin will ride on a gun carriage," said David Williamson, co-editor of Debrett's Peerage. He said it will resemble the 1979 funeral of Lord Louis Mountbatten more than the 1965 state funeral of Winston Churchill.

A spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace observed: "The status is irrelevant. This is a unique funeral for a unique person."

A spokesman at 10 Downing St. said Prime Minister Tony Blair, the princess' family and the palace "all believe that the funeral must involve the public. The prime minister thinks the outpouring of grief has been a reflection of the depth of affection and appreciation that people felt for Princess Diana and that the funeral should reflect that."

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