In an attempt to maintain my self-appointed role as "Everyman," I made certain that I was up early to view the funeral this past Saturday morning. After all, with an estimate two billions riders of Spaceship Earth predicted to bathe this final time in the mournful waters of grief and bereavement, who was I to opt out and skip the whole affair?
But the events Saturday left the old wordsmith groping for words, for terms that would apply. None that came quickly to mind seemed to do justice to what that was all about. Calling it "surreal," as many have, seemed as pointless as calling the Grand Canyon "a big gully." In fact, the whole sad ceremony seemed to transport one into a realm that had more to do with feelings and ideas than with anything tangible, anything you could put a finger on and name.
Certainly defining the obvious would take no skill, require no special thought. There were the huge crowds as expected, mountains of flowers, long camera views of ancient buildings that have stood the test of time and history, survived wars and the chaos of Mankind. There was the Queen, relenting finally to harsh public criticism and breaking with protocol, speaking to her subjects about the loss of a person of special value, doing her stiff upper-lipped best to radiate even a dab of sincerity and warmth through that frosty coating of Royal Reserve and perhaps succeeding just barely. There was the long and solemn cortege, the flag-draped casket resting atop a cannon carriage, winding along streets old as the ages. And pacing behind that the dead princess' young sons, the eldest now perhaps thrust into the space his mother left, the youngest perhaps not yet realizing the full depth of his loss. And there was ex-husband Charles, the Prince Charming who became a frog in Diana's eyes, the man destined to someday be king, but who may not now if some are correct. His father Prince Philip marched along also, no doubt in an attempt to show that the monarchy did indeed have heart, despite all the grief Diana was said to have visited upon her royal in-laws.
And finally there was her brother, Charles Spencer, his anger gleaming like the patina of fine old wood beneath the surface of emotions barely in check. It would rise to the top during the touching eulogy he would later give his fallen sister, seeping up in well-wrought words that would, like a shiny steel sword fired at the forge of just indignation, figuratively behead the royal family and the tabloid press all in one perfectly executed blow.
And there were the celebrities crowded into Westminster Abbey, the movie stars and opera singers rubbing elbows with the aristocracy, and with the few "common folk" associated with the various charities championed by the late princess who were invited. There was Elton John at the piano, struggling to maintain control of himself as he played his song memorializing Marilyn Monroe, a hit hurriedly rewritten to reflect the lost English Rose instead of Norma Jean, another prime example that fame doesn't necessarily equal happiness or longevity.
None of these things were really amazing, or beyond the pale of what was understandable even if they did surpass in scope what we are used to seeing. The grief of family and close friends is to be expected at such times and many times the funerals of movers and shakers take on grand proportions--albeit not proportions so grand as the ones we witnessed Saturday. If any president or head of state ever had a more spectacular send-off I'm not aware of it.
No, the inexplicable took its form in the action of the people; British people certainly, but people everywhere. Never before has the death of anyone touched so many people so deeply. If the mourning was palpable among the masses lining the tired old streets of London, it was no less so the faces of those watching the funeral ceremony on the big screen high above that infamous intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street in the heart of Manhattan. In cities large and small, in hamlets everywhere people were stricken with grief as though they had lost a member of their own family; even I, a cynic among cynics and a man not given to placing much faith in the value of celebrity, felt some strange sense of loss that I can't properly define, more like a feeling that the world was all of a sudden emptier.
I've thought about this but I don't know what to make of it, or what it says about the human race. It's always tempting to be glib and attribute the mass mourning to a human need to worship icons here in the physical realm, beings that we can see and appreciate, which might make it easier for us to have faith in the things we must belief solely on faith. Or you can blame it on celebrity worship, or the need for some to live vicariously through the deeds of others.
I've thought about it and none of those things really explain what happened and what is still happening. Somehow, a former kindergarten teacher who became a princess for a time captured a majority of hearts in the world. If you wrote that tale as a movie script you'd get laughed out of Tinseltown, it's so implausible.
I think her brother gave the best clue--the thing that got to us where it counts was her vulnerability. She might be beautiful and rich and famous, but the fears and doubts she had in herself shined out of those blue eyes sometimes when she peered up at that fetching angle. We sometimes saw in those eyes a frightened little girl who wanted to be loved and feared that she would not be.
As we now know, it was a fear badly misplaced. And she might well be as amazed as we all are by the turn of events.
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