The public funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales started on 6 September 1997 at 9:08 am in London, when the tenor bell sounded to signal the departure of the cortege from Kensington Palace. The coffin was carried from the palace on a gun carriage, along Hyde Park to St. James’ Palace, where Diana’s body had remained for five days before being taken to Kensington Palace. The Union Flag on top of the palace was lowered to half mast. The official ceremony was held at Westminster Abbey in London and finished at the resting place in Althorp.
Two thousand people attended the ceremony in Westminster Abbey while the British television audience peaked at 32.10 million, one of the United Kingdom’s highest viewing figures ever. Two billion people traced the event worldwide, making it one of the most watched events in history.
Diana’s coffin, draped with the royal standard with an ermine border, was brought to London from the Salpêtrière Hospital, via Vélizy – Villacoublay Air Base, Paris, by Diana’s ex-husband Charles, Prince of Wales and her two sisters on 31 August 1997. After being taken to a private mortuary it was put at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace.
The event was not a state funeral, but a royal ceremonial funeral including royal pageantry and Anglican funeral liturgy. A large display of flowers was installed at the gates of Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace. Eight members of The Queen’s Welsh Guards accompanied Diana’s coffin, draped in the royal standard with an ermine border, on the one-hour-forty-seven-minute ride through London streets. On top of the coffin were three wreaths of white flowers from her brother, the Earl Spencer, and her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. At St. James’s Palace, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, her sons, and her brother joined to walk behind. Five hundred representatives of various charities the Princess had been involved with joined behind them in the funeral cortege. The coffin passed Buckingham Palace where members of the Royal Family were waiting outside. Queen Elizabeth II bowed her head as it went by. More than one million people lined the streets of London, and flowers rained down onto the cortege from bystanders.
The ceremony at Westminster Abbey opened at 11:00 BST and lasted one hour and ten minutes. The royal family placed wreaths alongside Diana’s coffin in the presence of former British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan and Edward Heath, and former Conservative MP Winston Churchill, the grandson of World War II-era Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The guests included Sir Cliff Richard, Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, William J. Crowe, Bernadette Chirac, Queen Noor of Jordan, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Elton John, George Michael, Richard Branson, Luciano Pavarotti, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The Prime Minister Tony Blair read an excerpt from the First Epistle to the Corinthians: “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love”. Among other invitees were the King of Spain, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, the King of the Hellenes, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Japan, and Nelson Mandela.
The Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and the Dean of Westminster Wesley Carr were also present in the abbey. The Anglican service opened with the traditional singing of “God Save the Queen”. The pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 546), Antonín Dvořák, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustav Holst and other composers were played throughout the ceremony.
During the service, Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind” which had been re-written in tribute to Diana. He had contacted his writing partner Bernie Taupin, asking him to revise the lyrics of his 1973 song “Candle in the Wind” to honour Diana, and Taupin rewrote the song accordingly. Only a month before Diana’s death she had been photographed comforting John at the funeral of their mutual friend Gianni Versace.
“Song for Athene” by British composer John Tavener, with text by Mother Thekla, a Greek Orthodox nun, drawn from the Orthodox liturgy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir conducted by Martin Neary as Diana’s cortège departed from the main nave of Westminster Abbey. On Sunday, 7 September, an additional service for Diana was performed at Westminster Abbey in response to demand of people.
The burial occurred privately later the same day. Diana’s former husband, sons, mother, siblings, a close friend, and a clergyman were present. Diana’s body was clothed in a black long-sleeved dress designed by Catherine Walker, which she had chosen some weeks before. A set of rosary beads was placed in her hands, a gift she had received from Mother Teresa, who died the same week as Diana. Her grave is on an island within the grounds of Althorp Park, the Spencer family home for centuries.
At the ceremony, the Royal Standard which had covered the coffin was removed by Diana’s brother moments before she was buried, and replaced with the Spencer family flag; the Earl claimed that “She (Diana) is a Spencer now.” Princes Charles, William and Harry agreed to the change. However, Paul Burrell, Diana’s former butler, condemned the move, saying, “It had more to do with his Spencer v Windsor war than doing what Diana would have wanted. It was inappropriate and disrespectful. I knew it was not what Diana would have wanted. With that act, her brother was depriving the Princess of her proper status in life – a status of which she was proud.”
The original plan was for Diana to be buried in the Spencer family vault at the local church in nearby Great Brington, but Lord Spencer said that he was concerned about public safety and security and the onslaught of visitors that might overwhelm Great Brington. He decided that Diana would be buried where her grave could be easily cared for and visited in privacy by William, Harry, and other Spencer relatives.
The island is in an ornamental lake known as The Round Oval within Althorp Park’s gardens. A path with thirty-six oak trees, marking each year of her life, leads to the Oval. Four black swans swim in the lake. In the water there are water lilies, which, in addition to white roses, were Diana’s favourite flowers. On the southern verge of the Round Oval sits the Summerhouse, previously in the gardens of Admiralty House, London, and now adapted to serve as a memorial to Diana. An ancient arboretum stands nearby, which contains trees planted by the family. The Spencer family’s decision to bury the Princess in this secluded—and private—location has enabled them to visit her grave in private.
The burial party was provided by the 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, who were given the honour of carrying the Princess across to the island and lay her to rest. Diana was the Regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief from 1992 to 1997.