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‘Unique’ Rites to Lay Diana to Rest Saturday

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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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Although President Clinton said Monday that he will not attend, a few world leaders may be present this weekend. The usual huge ambassadorial presence, the military overtones and the pomp and circumstance of a formal event of state will be largely conspicuous by their absence.

Charles Spencer, the princess’ brother, said “the family has wholeheartedly agreed that it would be appropriate for Diana to receive a public funeral. The family acknowledges that it is right and proper that the people of Britain have their chance to pay their respects.”

William and Harry, with their father, Prince Charles, and their grandmother Queen Elizabeth II, are thought likely to remain in seclusion at Balmoral Castle in Scotland until Saturday’s ceremony.

Details were still being worked out Monday. But Diana will be borne in solemn public procession Saturday morning past the great, visitor-familiar landmarks of British state and royalty: along the tree-lined Mall bordering St. James’ Park, down Horse Guards Parade, along Whitehall and its ministries toward Parliament Square.

The funeral service itself will be celebrated at historic Westminster Abbey before 2,000 invited guests, including the Windsors, the Spencers, a relative handful of foreign dignitaries--and many ordinary people whose lives Diana touched through her charitable work.

Canon Stephen Oliver, an Anglican priest, said the funeral service will reflect the “very personal loss felt by everyone in this nation.” One planner said the emphasis will be on accessibility and simplicity.

“Saturday at the Abbey,” said the Evening Standard in a self-explanatory banner headline Monday. It is a date many tens of thousands will keep.

After the funeral, in keeping with the wishes of the Spencers, Diana will be buried in a private ceremony at the family estate of Althorp about 80 miles northwest of London. Twenty generations of the Spencer family lie there, including Laurence Washington, great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington.

“The body will be laid to rest with 500 years of Spencer ancestors, including her father,” Charles Spencer said. “This part of the day will be entirely private, with only immediate members [of the family] attending the burial conducted by a priest who is a family friend. Respect for the family’s privacy at this stage is thought to be only just, in view of the public nature of the early part of the day.”

The grieving people of Britain seemed moved by international echoes of their pain. By nightfall Monday, everybody knew that crowds at Yankee Stadium and the U.S. Open had observed minutes of silence for Diana, that there was a carpet of flowers outside the British Embassy in Washington and that Pope John Paul II had cabled the queen to say he was “deeply saddened at the news.”

There was silence too in Oslo, at the opening of an international conference on reducing land mines. Diana was the most prominent world benefactor of that cause. “Her tragic death has made a deep impression on all of us,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Bjoern Tore Godal told delegates.

Among the crowds who visited Kensington Palace on Monday was Danielle Stevenson, who brought a bouquet of sunflowers. Diana was a frequent visitor to the 8-year-old heart patient at nearby Royal Brompton Hospital.

“She would always pop in to see me for a chat and would write and phone all the time to see how I was getting on. I felt like she was one of my best friends,” Danielle said in a refrain repeated with endless variation in a weeping land Monday.


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