Funeral Signals Change in British Traditions

Skepticism of monarchy deepens amid calls for more compassion

On a day fraught with significance for the British people's sentiment toward its rulers, one moment stood out during Saturday's funeral for Diana, Princess of Wales.

As the organ in Westminster Abbey intoned the first chords of "God Save the Queen," the tens of thousands watching the ceremony on giant TV screens in central London's Hyde Park failed to instinctively rise to their feet.

This unusual hesitation, a rebuke to the royal family, was more than a display of popular sympathy for Diana, who clashed often with her in-laws. It was one more signal that as a new century approaches, this country seems ready to shake free from some of the aloof traditions that have shaped its history since Victorian times.

It is impossible to tell yet whether the extraordinary scenes of mourning over the past week signify shifts in British society or an aberration.

But the way the public made its views felt to the monarchy and the way they responded to Diana's death "may well be very seminal, very important, for the turn of the century culture of our politics and our society," says Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, an opposition party.

As the country emerged from the most astonishing few days in its recent history, people were seeking to give meaning to the unprecedented outpouring of collective grief. Asked why he had come to Hyde Park on Saturday to witness the funeral, Andy Jenkins, an electrician who had traveled 200 miles that morning, could say only that "it was just a gut feeling, something we had to do."

Many others echoed the same inchoate sense of obligation.

At an emotional level, the scale of the mourning - millions of flowers laid before the gates of London's royal palaces, grown men crying in the streets, handwritten poems of tribute pinned to trees in the park - marked an incredible break with British traditions of phlegm and reserve.

Some citizens were skeptical. "They are just a bunch of sheep," scoffed restaurant manager Richard Bigg as he watched the crowd disperse after the funeral. "Everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon and show they are more upset than everybody else."

Certainly, the media fed the frenzy. And the grief fed on itself as last week unfolded. But in one sense, this open display of emotion seemed fitting as a memorial to Diana, whose spontaneous and emotional responses set her apart from the rest of the royal family.

"I saw the queen when I was a boy in Kingston," recalled Xavier Greenland, an immigrant from Jamaica watching the cortege. "She goes all over the world but she just drives past and waves. Diana went to people who were hurting. It was different."

That point was driven home by Diana's younger brother Charles, Earl Spencer, in his tribute at the funeral (see text of the speech, Page 18). He pledged to her that "we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way which you were steering these two exceptional young men [her sons William and Harry] so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned."

Earl Spencer's blunt, personal speech, directly challenging the royal family and its distant style, was immensely popular among the public. But even Queen Elizabeth will have been grateful to him for his warnings against overblown reactions to his sister's death (see text of the queen's speech, Page 18).

"There is a temptation to rush to canonize your memory. There is no need to do so," he cautioned. "You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities not to need to be seen as a saint."

As "a woman of our time," in the worlds of French President Jacques Chirac, "Lady Di," as she will always be known popularly, touched a chord with the public in the late-20th century Britain.

The child of a broken marriage who suffered from eating disorders and went though a divorce herself, she survived - and talked about - her personal experiences. They seemed to exemplify the pressures of modern life that everyone had to cope with.

The glamour that surrounded her life, her attractiveness, and her jet-set ways, titillated public interest. But the work she did with AIDS patients and lepers and young homeless people in Britain, and especially the personal and compassionate way in which she did it, won widespread respect.

"She was so natural, there was never a show put on" when the princess visited sick or poor people, said Sharon Haines, a telephone worker standing in the Hyde Park crowd.

This respect is almost universal in Britain, even among those who feel the reaction to her death was disproportionate to its significance. The funeral on Saturday, ending with a nationwide minute of silence, united people in a manner unprecedented in peacetime.

The sense of community among the crowd in Hyde Park was palpable. "The point is to be here with everybody else, to share it," Ms. Haines explained.

That sense of a shared experience could have a healing effect in Britain. A quarter of a century of painful political conflicts and economic change have left the social fabric badly torn. Ethnic and class divisions have opened up in a society that has often seemed to lack a common sense of purpose.

A new mood of community would certainly chime with the direction in which Prime Minister Tony Blair would like to take what he calls the "New Britain." Elected in May on a platform that promised a more caring society, encouraging greater solidarity among its disparate elements, Mr. Blair is well placed to capitalize on such a mood. "Let her legacy be compassion," Blair said in a BBC interview after the service. "Let us be a better, a more compassionate Britain."

The question of how long it might last, however, was implied in a handwritten note a man left by a statue in Hyde Park after the funeral. "You are in our hearts today; may your inspiration live on in us all," it read.

But as people shake off the sense of unreality that has enveloped them, more practical concerns impose themselves.

"Everyone's had their opportunity to say goodbye," said Jennifer Cole, a teacher, as the funeral cortege drove away. "But you have to get on. I certainly do - the term starts Monday and all my students will be back."

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