It was a catharsis that failed. Whole classes and provinces turned out to say a tearful farewell to their “Rose without Thorns”, splashing out on carnations, inscribing their names in black-edged tomes, and filling Hyde Park beyond its capacity, yet it was clear that this was a wound that only time could deal with. Spectacularly displayed as they were, the nation’s rituals of bereavement, some official, others hesitant and impromptu, seemed obscurely unsatisfying.
The funeral itself was thankfully restrained. The dreadful “celebration of the life of” type of exhibitionism was ruled out, no doubt to the sorrow of many members of Di’s partytime generation. Some of the old must have winced as the Abbey echoed to the mawkish croonings of Reg from Pinner, the homosexual divorcee. But a genuine reminiscence of what was once the sober and dignified Anglican rite for the dead was preserved. A few prayers were said, not enough of course; but the Church knows that the new Britain is ill at ease when the Almighty is mentioned. Still, the prayers were there, sounding above the din.
And yet the diffuse anthology of performances: Verdi’s histrionics, Pachelbel’s splendid Canon, and the réchauffé medievalism of Taverner, hinted at a profound disjuncture between rite and audience. Embedded in these cameos attentive listeners could detect muffled residues of outlandish beliefs that had echoed down the centuries from Chalcedon through Cranmer, only to fade away before reaching the ears of the tragic queen who never was. Archbishop Carey stood as a lonely, defiant figure, speaking of his triune God, and assuring the deceased that God Himself had been crucified for her sins. Few of the assembled young can have registered his beliefs with anything but discomfort and a sense of strangeness.
The archbishop knows well enough that the Sloane species, and indeed the rest of the restless Princess Feelgood generation, is not in tune with Trinities, Vicarious Atonements, or Dual Natures. The Britain which displayed its mourning so conspicuously was declaring its preference for the very different worldview which Diana, and in his alternate, more introverted fashion, her ex-husband, were palpably and sometimes controversially seeking. The rituals at the Abbey were a posthumous bid to claim the Dionysiac, indulgent, tarot-card Princess for an older and more Christian generation; yet the presence of the crowds outside mutely affirmed her modernity. Simple beliefs, simple goodness, and simple spirituality were the values she was believed to have upheld, in opposition to the now largely uncomprehended complexities of Trinitarian ritual and belief.
Rooted in Roman mortuary custom, the Christian obsequies which enshrine these notions are protracted and often agonising. Grieving relatives must display themselves, and be scrutinised by the prurient public eye during a lengthy and deliberately tear-jerking ceremony. Other religions, almost without exception, regard this dirgelike and spun-out style of valediction as disturbingly lacking in compassion, and also as morbidly insistent on the physical presence of the deceased. In Muslim communities, things are done fast: the body is washed by relations, as a moving physical sign of farewell; and is then prayed over in the mosque in a ceremony which requires no more than two minutes. The deceased, carried in turn by members of the family and by friends and wellwishers, is then walked to the cemetery. The voyage from death to dust takes less than a day, after which the family can retreat into private grief and prayers, unburdened by plans for the coming week. The healing is supplied by the confidence that “nothing will befall us save what God has inscribed”, and by the balm of the Revelation, with its soaring, dignified cadences which remind all humans that their mortality in this world is as sure as their immortality in the next.
The princess’s companion, the Fayed heir, thus endured less, and his family could begin to reconstruct their lives quickly, privately, and with less distraction. Yet although tradition parted them in death, the affianced pair perished together, blood conmingled, in a poignant union of love and death which Orientals are already prizing as a latter-day romance of Layla and Majnun, or Ferhad and Shirin. The British public will not accept this motif, of course, since the blonde princess’s lover was an Arab, and the gossip-columnists who had shaken their heads over Dodi’s “unsuitability” were transparently and by public consent alluding to his race and religion. The disclosure that her suitor had given her a ring hours before their death, and reports of her own joyous proclamations of having been happier in his company than ever before in her life, must needs be passed over in puzzled silence by White England. The idea of the nation’s Rose surrendering to the embraces of a brown, Arab, non-Christian Egyptian, of contemplating a future as Mrs Diana Al-Fayed, will forever be too much for our country to contemplate. There can be no doubt that had Dodi been of approved genetic and spiritual inheritance, Di’s funeral would have been as romantic as her wedding.
But our England will have none of this, and they lie apart in the very different worlds of Woking and the island in the Spencer estate near Northampton. Dodi, the public has concluded, was simply a confusing annoyance, a walk-on part. He is written out of this Shakespearian tragedy whose audience will tolerate no subplots, and only one moral to the story, now that the grand denouement has been written.
But the morals of this story are legion, and they cut to the core of our modern anxieties. The millions who followed her funeral were not just mourning a posh odalisque, they were propelled onto the streets by a mute desire for answers to deep and frightening questions. Confronted by the sudden, irrevocable extinction of the world’s best-known woman, who had revelled in her role as an incarnation of thezeitgeist, the masses were unpleasantly faced with their own mortality. If Diana is not divine, then, perhaps, neither are we. We are all tagging along after her cortege, and all our ambitions, disappointments and pleasures will end up in a muddy hole. “Wherever you may be, death with catch you up, even if you be in lofty citadels,” insists the Book; for “every soul will taste of death.” The Grand Leveller who is insistently and so successfully veiled by a modern generation which has no time to reflect, still awaits us all, not, as we vaguely assume, as a distant liberator from senescence, but as an ever-threatening extinguisher of all our pleasures.
The crowds sensed something else. Just as Diana was mortal, so too are the institutions she did so much both to represent and to injure. The Union Flag flapping uncomfortably at half-mast over the Palace seemed like the augury of a dynasty’s future. The tabloids, obsequiously voicing the inchoate passions of the masses, demanded that the thunderstruck Royals perform in public, and in the same clipped, hectoring sentences promised to respect their privacy more fully. Even reigning monarchs cannot now transcend the empire of the media: their worth for the ephemeral politicians who can decide their fate is measured not by the tables in Debretts but by the opinion polls; and now that their lives are not clearly distinguished in the popular consciousness from the melodramas of Brookside, the House of Windsor may be abolished altogether with a simple collective click on the TV switch. Thus the Prince’s remarriage prospects, already complicated by religious strictures, now seem hopeless, his dignified or floundering responses to a soundbite age send his popularity plummeting ever further; and England may well surrender to the mediocrity of republicanism before it has another queen, or even a princess consort.
Diana incarnated for the masses their confusion about the Royal Family, but also held up a mirror to their nervousness about modern family life in a more general way. She had inflicted much damage on her own marriage through her erratic craving for self-esteem which, as the Morton revelations documented, made her manipulative enough to set her own happiness firmly before that of her family and the constitutional security of the nation. Part of the blame for this must be carried by feminism, which has diminished the self-esteem available to wives seeking fulfilment in traditional roles. But there is another culprit to be fingered. Traumatised at six by a mother who ran off with another man, Diana revealed to the public a fact it suppresses and yearns to deny: the depth and permanence of the wound that divorce inflicts. “Divorce shakes the throne of God”, a hadith affirms, and Diana showed how it could shake temporal thrones just as thoroughly. Her own divorce, adding to the tide of misery now flooding through the courts each year, seemed to personify the public fear that the most basic of all our institutions is under threat.
The princess also captured the public’s imagination in her pursuit of the traditional noblesse oblige charity work expected of women in her position. She was not exceptional in this, despite the media hype: Princess Alexandra and Queen Mary had been no less indefatigable in their support for good causes. But Diana’s chosen charities showed how intimately she shared the nervousness of the world beyond the palace gates: homelessness, AIDS, toddlers maimed by British landmines, modern casualties of every sort were embraced by Diana, and the public embraced them through her arms, as though to dissipate some fraction of its guilt.
Diana hence becomes a true icon of modernity. The cultish reactions to her death well define the quality of our contemporary mood, which cannot imagine a saint who negates self, and can only venerate those who fall prey to vice, and who then publicly, for our entertainment and vicarious delectation, wrestle with the consequences. Yet she knew, as do we all, that the new sanctity does not liberate. Every time she hurled herself down an Adams staircase, or starved herself almost to death, she discovered the child’s bitter lesson that the relief and attention brought by crying never lasts. But her world failed to teach her the alternative, which is to be noticed not by mortals but by God, and to draw strength and consolation from private prayer. Her mother-in-law no doubt tried to explain this to her, but the babble of the age drowned out all such counsels. The tristesse which follows each brief bout of enjoyment demands either penitence, or further indulgence. In the end, her commitment to the latter, Dionysiac choice of her world made her a martyr to the modern jet-set trinity of cognac, cars and recurrent priapic consolations. King Priapus, tirelessly working to unseat the House of Windsor, and busy too in Washington, usually wins in the end. The only enemy that has ever chained him is religion, and religion is old here, and has grown feeble.
Diana was her own victim, certainly. More self-restraint and wifely acquiescence in her husband would have ensured that she would now be at Balmoral with her children. But hers was not an independent mind, she merely followed the instincts of her class, and those instincts are ultimately self-destructive. Ill-prepared for life amid the staid but genuinely self-abnegating Windsors, she threw herself downstairs. She was not pushed.
As for the nation’s mourning, this can only be interpreted as guilt. We are responsible for the ethos that killed the Princess. We did not shout with disgust at her adulteries; we sniggered, and asked for more pictures. We did not express our misgivings at her involvement with the airheaded and abjectly materialistic international set. She heard our lack of protests, and pressed on to destruction. We are all instrumental in her demise; hence the raw sharpness of the nation’s grief, and the disturbing failure of its rituals. The orgiastic and shallow world that we have shaped in defiance of God has claimed another soul – and each one of us will be judged.
© Abdal-Hakim Murad, 1997