SUPPORT OUR JOURNALISM: Please consider donating to keep our website running and free for all - thank you!

British RoyalsFeatures

The final goodbye to Diana: a look back at her funeral

She was known as “the People’s Princess,” and even after her untimely death, it proved so as an estimated billions across the world watched Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral on 6 September 1997. This made it one of the biggest televised events in history.

Embed from Getty Images

Hours after her death on 31 August, Diana’s coffin, draped with the Royal Standard with an emine border (i.e. the Other Members’ standard), left the Pitié-Salpétrière Hospital in Paris accompanied by Diana’s former husband, Prince Charles and her two sisters, Lady Jane Fellows and Lady Sarah McCorquodale. After she was taken to a private mortuary, Diana’s casket was placed at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, before it was brought to Kensington Palace the night before the funeral.

Embed from Getty Images

At 9:08 a.m. London time on Saturday, 6 September, the tenor bell of Westminster Abbey started to toll to signal the departure of the cortège from Kensington Palace. Diana’s coffin was carried from the palace on a gun carriage by ridges of the King’s Troop and was escorted by mounted police. She travelled along Hyde Park to St James’s Palace, where her 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 funeral arrangements were a bit tricky because she was no longer married into the Royal Family. It was ultimately decided the funeral plan for The Queen Mother, codenamed “Operation Tay Bridge,” would be used as the basis for the funeral. While The Queen Mother did not die until 2002, by this time, the funeral plan had been rehearsed for 22 years. Although, this was not a state funeral. It instead was a royal ceremonial funeral including royal pageantry and Anglican funeral liturgy.

Embed from Getty Images

In addition to the large display of flowers at the gates of Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, it wasn’t the end of the floral tributes. As eight members of the Welsh Guards accompanied Diana’s one hour and 47 minute long ride through London streets, three wreaths of white flowers lay on the casket. A wreath from her brother, the Earl Spencer, and her sons, Princes William and Harry. Famously, there was also a letter on the coffin from Harry addressed to “Mummy.” As a tradition with British royalty, the coffin was lined with lead, weighing a quarter of a tonne (250 kg/550 lb.)

At St James’s Palace, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princes Charles, William and Harry, and Diana’s brother joined to walk behind the gun carriage. Behind them were 500 representatives of the various charities the Princess was involved with over her life. Alastair Campbell, a British journalist, later revealed in his diaries the government and Royal Household feared for Charles’s safety and believed he would possibly get attacked by the crowd. Thus, they ensured he was accompanied by his sons.

Embed from Getty Images

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, initially opposed the idea of the young boys (William, 15 and Harry, 12) from walking in the procession, but ultimately decided he’d do it. He famously told his grandsons, “I’ll walk if you walk.”

William would later say it was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. He added that it was an act necessary to maintain the balance between “duty and family.” Harry would say that no child should be asked to do what they did.

Embed from Getty Images

As the casket passed Buckingham Palace, members of the Royal Family were waiting outside. Queen Elizabeth II joined the family and bowed her head as the casket passed. More than one million people lined the streets, and flowers rained down onto the cortège from bystanders. Two screens were put in Hyde Park to relay the Westminster Abbey service.

Two thousand people attended the funeral service. Beginning at 11 a.m. and lasting an hour and 10 minutes, the Royal Family placed wreaths alongside the coffin in the presence of then-Britian’s living former prime ministers, including Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Others in attendance included George Michael, Sir Cliff Richard, then-U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Tom Hanks.

Embed from Getty Images

Prime Minister Tony Blair read an excerpt from the First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the Dean of Westminster, Wesley Carr, were also present and delivered the bidding, the prayers, and the commendation. Diana’s sisters both gave readings, and her brother Charles gave the eulogy.

Perhaps one of the most notable moments of the service is when Diana’s friend, Elton John, sang his hit, “Candle in the Wind,” with new lyrics written as a tribute to the late Princess. The 1973 song about Marilyn Monroe was rewritten accordingly with the help of John’s writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

As Diana’s cortège departed Westminster, “Song for Athene” by British composer John Tavener, with text by Mother Thekla, a Greek Orthodox nun, was sung. The text was drawn from the Orthodox liturgy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As Diana left The Abbey for the final time, a one-minute silence by half-muffled change ringing on The Abbey’s ten bells followed.

Embed from Getty Images

Diana was taken to her childhood home of Althrop for a private burial. Famously, hundreds of flowers were thrown at the cortège during the drive from London to the West Northamptonshire home. Buried on the small island in the middle of the ornamental Round Oval Lake, Diana’s former husband, sons, mother, siblings, and a clergyman were all present for the burial.

It is said Diana was buried in a black, long-sleeved, three-quarter-length woollen cocktail dress designed by Catherine Walker. This was a dress she had chosen just weeks before. She was also clothed with a pair of black pantyhose and black shoes. A set of rosary beads was placed in her hands, a gift she received from Mother Teresa, who died the same week as Diana. Also in her hands was a photo of her sons that travelled with her and that had been found in her handbag. It is reported photos of her sons from under her glass dressing table at Kensington Palace were buried with her as well.

During the ceremony, the Royal Standard that covered the casket was removed. Paul Burrell, Diana’s former butler, claims the standard was removed by Diana’s brother just moments before she was buried, and replaced with the Spencer family flag. Originally, the plan was for Diana to be buried in the Spencer family vault at a local church in nearby Great Brington. Lord Spencer was concerned about security and decided she would be buried where her grave could be easily cared for and visited privately by her loved ones.

Embed from Getty Images

The island in an ormanetal lake is known as The Round Oval within Althrop Park’s Gardens. A path to the oval is lined with 36 oak trees to mark each year of Diana’s life. Her favourite flowers, white lilies and white roses float in the water. Near the island is Summerhouse, previously in the gardens of Admiralty House, London; it is now a memorial for Diana. An ancient arboretum stands nearby, with trees planted by the Spencer family. Visitors to Althrop are able to see the memorial and the island from afar. Although the island itself is not open to the public.

On the same day, services of commemoration and events honouring the Princess were held in cities and towns across the nation, including Manchester, Bolton, and Liverpool. Toll booths on Severn Bridges remained closed during the national minute’s silence. The next day, on 7 September, an additional service for Diana was held at Westminster Abbey due to popular demand.

Outside of the United Kingdom, Ireland honoured Diana by flying its national flag at half-mast on state buildings on the day of her funeral. On the same day, a memorial service was held at the Washington National Cathedral and attended by more than 2,170 people. In Tonga, a group of mourners organised a traditional wake, or pongipongi, after the funeral.

The funeral became a worldwide television event with an estimated audience between 2 and 2.5 billion people watching. In the United Kingdom alone, 31 million people watched. This made it one of the most watched live broadcasts to date (Second to the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final). 33.2 million in the United States watched, and 1.65 million in Australia watched despite drastic time differences. BBC Radio broadcasted the funeral in 44 languages around the world.

About author

My name is Sydney Zatz and I am a University of Iowa graduate. I graduated with a degree in journalism and sports studies, and a minor in sport and recreation management. A highlight of my college career was getting the chance to study abroad in London and experiencing royal history firsthand. I have a passion for royals, royal history, and journalism, which led me to want to write for Royal Central.