The death of Diana: Private tragedy, public grief
It is 20 years since the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The loss of this undoubtedly gifted woman whose ability to connect with ordinary people and whose willingness to engage with unfashionable causes like her support for HIV victims, through her charity work helped to remove so much stigma and who did so much good, shocked the whole world.
But above everything, it was the most terrible and unimaginably awful loss for her sons William and Harry. Diana the mother was the role she cherished more than anything and the one in which she excelled.
However, 20 years on I remain as baffled by the public outpouring of grief for a woman few people really knew, as I did then.
I remember watching television coverage of her body being moved by car on the night before her funeral, accompanied by William and Harry. Vast crowds were there, but as the car continued on its journey, flash bulbs from the cameras not of the press but of mourners filled the dark sky.
Who takes photographs of a car containing a dead body, I remember wondering. If people were there to pay their respects, then show some respect. I felt so sorry for William and Harry. But it was the just the start.
Then there were the flowers piled up outside Buckingham Palace. I did not doubt the motivations of people who placed them there, but it just struck me as such a terrible waste of money. Surely Diana, whose commitment to a huge number of charities was so strong and genuine, would have preferred that people have given money to a charity she supported so that if there was to be anything remotely positive to come from her death it would be through helping those in need.
Most baffling for me was the need for people to go to London to mourn someone they didn’t actually know. This for me was summed up someone who wrote to The Guardian. She had bumped into a friend on the tube who was carrying a bunch of flowers and on her way to leave them at the gates of Kensington Palace. The writer had a lost both her parents a year or so previously in a car accident and the friend had never even mentioned it.
It struck me then, and my view hasn’t changed now, that as the spectacle and the piles of flowers grew people were swept up by their shock and sadness at the death of an iconic public figure. It seemed to me that many people wanted to be in London for the funeral to say they’d been there. It could almost have been any major occasion, I thought, but don’t tell me everyone was there to pay respects.
The day of the funeral itself was worse. As the coffin followed by Prince Charles, The Duke of Edinburgh. Earl Spencer and, so incredibly poignantly, William and Harry, people wailed.
But the very worse scenes for me took place as Diana’s body was taken to Althorp after the funeral. A time for silent reflection? No, people clapped. They actually clapped a coffin. I found that as baffling now as I did then. What happened to bowing of heads, standing in thought?
And the flowers. A carpet of flowers or petals for the car to drive over might have had some merit. But no, cellophane wrapped bunches were thrown at the car in the most undignified way.
I do not question that people were shocked, I do not doubt that people felt sad, but 20 years on I remain as puzzled by the way some people reacted to the death of someone they didn’t actually know, quite, quite bizarre.
The death of any public figure is unsettling for anyone who admires and respects them (I still remember clearly hearing of the sudden and premature death of Labour Leader John Smith, by all accounts a decent man who died just when he seemed likely to reach the pinnacle of his political career), but above all it is a personal tragedy for their loved ones and friends who have lost someone they actually know.
I am no fan of the idea of keeping a stiff upper lip. Indeed I think people should be encouraged to show their feelings but I will never understand people’s need to indulge so publically in “grief” for people they never met and didn’t actually know.