Belfast Telegraph

Diana's funeral showed valuable role of Church in times of crisis

By Alf McCreary

This week's ITV programme to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, brought back many memories for all of us. During the period when her remains were in St James's Palace, I happened to be in London on business and was on my way to France, where I was attending a European university conference. Those few days before and after her funeral in Westminster Abbey were extraordinary.

That night, as I stood outside St James's Palace, where hundreds of thousands of flowers had been placed- with more being placed by the minute - I asked a policeman, "Where is Diana's body, inside the Palace?"

He pointed to a stained-glass window in front of us and told me: "Her body is lying in a room just on the other side of that window."

I carried that image with me to France, and on the morning of Diana's funeral several of the delegates from the UK universities joined me to watch the service live from Westminster Abbey. Incidentally, none of the other Europeans joined us.

For many reasons it was a remarkable funeral, which had been organised by the royal family, and in particular by the Dean, the Very Rev Wesley Carr.

Wesley Carr was an abrasive and at times overbearing figure, but he knew how to run a major State funeral, including those of Diana and, later, the Queen Mother.

There were many odd moments during Diana's funeral, including Elton John playing and singing Candle in the Wind, Earl Spencer - of all people - lecturing the royal family from the sanctity of the Abbey pulpit, and Tony Blair reading from the New Testament with a certain theatricality that somehow diminished the occasion. The funeral service was, at times, teetering on the edge of showbusiness, but it was an unforgettable occasion.

I remember particularly the magnificent music, including Sir John Taverner's haunting Song For Athene, which was sung by the choir as eight young Welsh Guards, some taken from serving in South Armagh, carried Diana's weighty coffin out of the church.

It was an immensely tragic and moving spectacle. Having just watched it again tonight for the first time since then, on YouTube, I can feel the goose pimples rising. After a minute's silence, the coffin was taken into the sunshine and Diana's body was transported while hundreds of people applauded and threw flowers at the slowly moving hearse.

That in itself was an extraordinary example of sorrow and respect, and at that time unique. I remember thinking to myself that this was a picture of a nation where so many people had abandoned or had not known a Christian faith, and did not know how to react to such a loss. This was something that also greatly surprised Dean Carr, who before the funeral had walked anonymously through the crowds outside the Abbey. He said later that this was evidence of generations of people who had never grieved or had forgotten how to grieve.

Princess Diana's funeral was in a milestone in social history, for it marked the beginning of a period when people became no longer inhibited about crying in public and showing their deepest emotions.

In the past, the norm was maintaining a stiff upper lip, and keeping the emotions firmly in check. Some people looked on a display of emotions on such occasions as a form of weakness, and perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.

Nowadays, people display their emotions quite openly, perhaps too openly, on almost every public occasion, from a funeral to a television studio. This - if nothing else - shows that they are human.

However, there is still an argument for handling grief and sorrow with a tight-lipped dignity, which in fact emphasises what may be going on behind that stiff exterior.

The great paradox of Princess Diana's funeral is that it combined both approaches to death - the tears outside the Abbey, and inside the depth of a Christian service of a beautiful woman and mother who had died so tragically, and so young.

It also showed that the Church, in times of public or personal crisis, still plays an important role in the affairs of the nation and in family life by helping people to cope with the harsh reality of death.

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