Prayers, Tears, and Cameras
As in London, the skies were grey and the wait long. By the time that Washington National Cathedral opened its doors at 11:45 a.m., a line of people stretched from the cathedral's west entrance on down the long driveway to Wisconsin Avenue. Over an hour remained before the beginning of the service commemorating the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
A visitor approaching the south entrance asked a woman nearby whether the cathedral had opened yet.
"I think you have to go to the west end," she replied. "This is the press entrance."
It was not surprising that the press would turn up in force for the service that marked Washington's primary memorial for Diana, but the media's presence added a certain irony to the occasion. After all, only one week ago, Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash while her car was being followed by press photographers. Despite evidence that Diana's chauffeur may have been drunk at the time, French police continue to investigate the possibility that the photographers' pursuit caused the crash.
At a time when world sentiment seems to be turning against the newspapers that printed gossip about Diana, Washington Cathedral held a service that appeared not to hold the newspapers and their readers under hard judgment. The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, dean of the Episcopal cathedral, suggested that the outpouring of grief showed that followers of Diana news may have had higher motives than previously thought. "What was thought to be an insatiable appetite for salacious gossip, a venial sin, is now seen to be genuine affection," he said.
He spoke a few minutes after a tribute to Diana was delivered by a prominent Washington figure: Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post.
Mrs. Graham spoke directly of the news media only once, mentioning how grateful Diana was to her for protecting her from undue publicity. Instead, she related a series of anecdotes that were intended to show Diana's compassion and humor.
Diana, on how she ought to be addressed: "Call me Diana. Everyone in America does."
On her two young sons, Prince William and Prince Harry: "I want them to grow up knowing there are poor people as well as palaces."
On whether she planned to return to college: "I've already had an education."
On the many charities that she sponsored: "If I'm going to talk on behalf of any cause, I want to go and learn about the problem myself."
And, perhaps most poignantly, on whether she gambled: "Not with cards, but with life."
The service leaflet asked that still photographs and videos not be taken during the service, but television cameras were scattered throughout the cathedral. The theme of the service was Diana's compassion for the unfortunate members of society, but the presence of the press forced other issues to the surface. Diana's ambiguous relationship with the press – calling upon the media's resources to publicize her charities, while shunning the media's interest in her private life – showed what a powerful and doubled-edged weapon the news media has become. The media's presence at a bereavement service showed the same.
As the service ended, congregation members gathered on the west lawn to look at a small collection of flower bouquets that had been placed there. A small rose lay wrapped in a paper doily; another rose was labelled, "For the world's rose, Diana, a rose that pales in comparison." And for the princess who had wanted to be "the queen of the people's hearts," one bouquet contained a single playing card: the queen of hearts.
The crowd in front of the flowers was quiet. The loudest sound was the peal of the cathedral's half-muffled bells and the clicking of press cameras.
World News: Church of England Holds "Unique" Funeral Service for Princess Diana (September 9, 1997)
World Brief: Death of Diana Affects Church of England Succession (August 31, 1997)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson