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They had walked in its shadow before, down sniper-scarred streets, but these dozen Welsh Guards had never imagined their next experience with death would come on a sun-kissed September morning in London. Still, there was no mistaking the mission that had summoned them from patrol duty in Northern Ireland to the Wellington Barracks in St. John's Wood. Hoisting the 560-pound practice casket onto their shoulders, rehearsing their stately funereal lockstep, they were preparing for the longest 110 yards of their lives—serving as pallbearers for Princess Diana. "He was proud to carry her coffin," says Anita Jones, whose son John, 25, was among the members of the 1st Battalion selected by their commanding officer for the assignment. "But he phoned the day before the funeral and told me he was worried. He was afraid that when he saw all the people crying, that it would be hard to keep his composure."

And it was, as became apparent to the 1,900 mourners packing Westminster Abbey Sept. 6 and the more than 2 billion television viewers—the largest audience in TV history—who joined them. "Those poor guardsmen, they looked so desolate and struggling," says David Leonard, who attended the service as a representative of the London Symphony Chorus, of which the princess had been patron. Despite all the days of preparation, neither John Jones and his comrades nor the sorrowful world that watched had been able to anticipate the weight of the solemn spectacle. "I can't believe the strength of the shock," says royal authority Brian Hoey. "Diana will become the Evita of Britain. She will always be a 36-year-old fantasy princess with whom people will identify forever."

Among both the celebrities with whom Di partied and the common folk she touched through her charities, the princess's death on Aug. 31 in the Paris car crash that also claimed the life of her lover Dodi Al Fayed and their driver Henri Paul released unprecedented waves of emotion. Luciano Pavarotti pronounced himself too distressed to perform at his friend's funeral, while nurse Maureen Ferguson, who had only met Diana in June, when she visited London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, also felt shaken. "The whole ward lit up as if by magic in that special moment," she recalls. The shocking and sudden loss of a vibrant beauty plucked at her peak—too early to achieve her happily-ever-after, to see her elder son, William, inherit the throne, to watch Harry blossom into manhood—pierced Britain and the world to its core.

It was the powerful sense of shared loss that drew so many mourners into the streets. Tearful and eerily silent, they made impromptu shrines around London sites: at Kensington Palace, Diana's home; at St. James's Palace, where her body lay until the eve of her funeral; even at Harrods, the department store owned by Dodi's father, billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, who just six days earlier had laid his eldest son to rest in a private ceremony. "People feel guilty because they didn't show her they loved her," says Elise Smith, 38, who came with her husband, David, from their home in Kent to pay their respects. "She was such a part of our lives that she became family."

Meanwhile in Paris, a police investigation continued into the role that paparazzi might have played in Diana's fatal accident, and details of her last day of life continued to emerge. (Bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, though intermittently conscious, may not be able to talk to police for several weeks.) Though Al Fayed family spokesman Michael Cole couldn't confirm that the couple had become engaged (Dodi had given Diana a reported $200,000 gold-and-diamond ring from Paris's Repossi jewelry boutique the afternoon before they were killed), he did reveal that the princess had presented Dodi with cuff links that had once belonged to her beloved father, the eighth Earl Spencer.

What might have passed between the doomed lovers in their last hours together seemed only to increase the bereavement back in London. Everywhere were tributes: balloons bobbing in the breeze, votive candles, teddy bears propped against gates and walls, painstakingly prepared notes and children's crayon drawings. Most of all there were flowers—so many lilies and tulips and roses that British florists scrambled to meet the demand. The sea of bouquets, spread across lawns and surrounding trees, filled central London with a sweet smell that helped comfort the grieving. "It was almost like there was a perfume in the making," says Palm Beach accessories designer Lana Marks, a confidante of the princess's who flew in for the funeral.

But there was another, even headier scent in the air—the whiff of change. Following Diana's death, the grief-wracked populace, urged on by the same aggressive press that the princess had decried only days before the crash as "ferocious," demanded that her former in-laws drop the stony silence of protocol and publicly share the nation's sorrow. After the unrelenting barrage of criticism—and some well-placed words from media-savvy Prime Minister Tony Blair—the House of Windsor blinked. Queen Elizabeth took the extraordinary step of making a live, televised speech to assure her subjects that "we have all been trying in our different ways to cope."

But behind the scenes, as plans took shape for what Buckingham Palace dubbed "a unique service for a unique person," there were, not surprisingly, conflicts—the kind that Diana, who so frequently felt constrained by formality, would' have recognized. It was through the balancing act of Sir Robert Fellowes—both the Queen's private secretary and the husband of Diana's sister Jane—that the Spencer side succeeded in shaping the kind of personalized rite that the princess herself might have designed.

Elton John (he had recently made up with Diana after a tiff involving her withdrawal from a book party planned by their late mutual friend Gianni Versace) was invited to sing. Diana's sons William, 15, and Harry, nearly 13, were allowed to choose-whether they would march behind her coffin. And instead of filling the Abbey with dignitaries alone, places were found for those who mattered to Di—from Bridget Barford, a cleaner at the princess's ancestral estate, Althorp House, to representatives of some 70 charities. (Those invited, who received their vellum envelopes by hand delivery or registered mail, were culled from Diana's Christmas card list, with suggestions from her butler Paul Burrell, her former private secretary Patrick Jephson and his assistant Nicky Cockell.)

"The funeral had Diana's fingerprints all over it," says Jerry White, who met the princess through his work as director of the Landmine Survivors Network. "Every time a wheelchair passed me, my heart went out to them, knowing that Diana had touched that person."

Of course she also struck a chord with those outside the Abbey—people who mourned not only the loss of Diana but also the disappearance of what they felt was their only connection to the monarchy. They comprised a rainbow constituency infinitely vaster than Di, in her insecurity, could have ever believed—or her in-laws imagined. Thousands camped out through the chilly and rainy night before the funeral to ensure prime viewing spots along the two-mile procession route, which had been doubled in length to accommodate them. "I have an overwhelming sense of loss," says Londoner David Waller, 31, who sat in St. James's Park with a shrine of four candles before him. "One night is nothing after all she gave us."

The next day the morning of the funeral dawned cloudless and bright, the autumnal nip in the air a reminder that even the fairest English roses have their season. Inside Kensington Palace, where her coffin had been moved the previous evening, the princess, her face unscarred by the crash, had been laid out in a formal black coat-dress, bought only weeks earlier and never worn. It was designed by Catherine Walker, one of her favorites. She looked wrenchingly lovely.

At 9:08 a.m. the scheduled starting time for the cortege, the crowd pressed six deep on the pavement outside Kensington Palace. "Never seen anything like this. Never will again," said one London police officer. As photographers perched in the high windows of a facing building snapped feverishly, the faint sound of horses' hooves coming from the lane leading out of the palace grew, followed by the creak of carriage wheels. All at once there they were—the first members of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery, ready to begin the hour-and-50-minute march to Westminster Abbey.

The solid-oak coffin—drawn on a gun carriage—was draped with the Royal Standard and topped by three white wreaths: tulips from William, a large spray of lilies from Earl Spencer and, from little Harry, the creamy Princess of Wales roses developed by a British botanist for his mother and available only this year. Nestled inside them was a card with MUMMY printed in a child's uncertain hand. Spectators sent flowers arcing through the air at the horses, who had been trained not to shy. As the cortege moved down the road, few broke ranks to chase it. Instead, crying strangers hugged one another. For many, the sadness deepened with the memory of that other morning, 16 years and a lifetime ago, when the silk-swathed Diana rode in her glass coach toward what she would eventually call the "fairy story that everybody wanted to work." "Soon as that first horse come around the corner," says London supermarket worker Jason Fryer, 28, "the lump in your throat got so big you couldn't possibly have no other emotions."

As the cortege neared Buckingham Palace, there in front of the gate stood the somber-looking royals, including Princes Edward and Andrew, Andrew's ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, and their two daughters. The gun carriage passed. The Queen bowed her head, a sensational gesture written in no book of protocol. Prince Andrew and a few of the others followed suit. "It was a lovely gesture," says Hoey. "They had little love for her, but the Queen was recognizing the affection and respect she was held in by the people."

Then, after Elizabeth's limousine left for the Abbey, came another departure from decorum—the kind of visible tribute to Diana the British people had been demanding all week: the Union Jack was lowered to half-staff over the palace. Onlookers applauded loudly. "We don't want a distant royal family any more," says Londoner Richard Hawkins, 26. "We know that they're human—they can't hide behind the palace walls. They still can remain a fine institution, but they will have to adapt."

Outside St. James's Palace, the principal mourners—Earl Spencer, William and Harry—were joined not only by Prince Charles, 48, but by his father, the 76-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, widely believed to have been one of the late princess's fiercest critics. Their impeccable tailoring stood in pointed contrast to that of the 500 charity representatives behind them, some in wheelchairs or on crutches and some wearing T-shirts or sweatshirts with their organizations' logos as urged by the Palace and the Spencers.

As the three men and two boys marched the last mile, Prince Harry occasionally quickstep-ping to keep pace with the others, a mix of dignitaries, pop royalty and personal friends of Diana's filed into the Abbey to the somber cadence of its tenor bell, tolling every minute. Mindful of public outrage over the possible paparazzi role in Diana's death, the press refrained from trying for sound bites from such attendees as Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Sting and Steven Spielberg.

Past the white-and-green floral arrangements selected by the Spencer family, ushers escorted the VIPs to their seats, indicated by the color-coding of the invitations. The assembled mourners testified to the tangled relationships that had formed the tapestry of Diana's life. At one time or another, the princess, on her often erratic emotional course, had become estranged from nearly all of those closest to her, including the Duchess of York, Diana's sister Lady Jane Fellowes and her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, 61—with whom she had a falling-out this spring over an interview with Hello! magazine in which her mother said she was surprised that Diana and Prince Charles had discussed their adulteries on television.

At the stroke of 11, the stirring chords of "God Save the Queen" swelled in the Abbey as the Welsh Guards carried Diana's casket to its resting place near the altar. Just as the coffin was set on a catafalque between the Spencers and the Windsors, sunshine streaked through the leaded-glass windows. The first hymn, "I Vow to Thee, My Country," was Prince William's choice; it had been his mother's favorite.

During the funeral itself, the royals' reactions were shielded, by prior agreement, from the TV audience—but not from their fellow mourners. Though Prince William and Prince Harry "were very dignified and very composed throughout the service," says Lana Marks, who sat diagonally opposite the royal family, "they were tearful from time to time." Both boys were overcome by Elton John's performance of his revamped "Candle in the Wind" (text on page 59), originally a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, as was their "anguished" father and a "distraught" Duchess of York. "I was trying to keep a rather stiff upper lip," says guest Wayne Sleep, the former Royal Ballet principal who partnered Diana during her surprise waltz onstage in 1985: "But I thought of her and all of our times together, and during the last verse of Elton's song, I started to go."

Others were more pained by what followed—Earl Spencer's eloquent, outspoken tribute to his sister, replete with barbed comments to the royal family concerning their treatment of her and his nephews' future. (See full text of eulogy on page 70, story on page 76.) According to Marks, both Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother flinched during the speech. But Prince William was visibly moved—as was the waiting public. "When he finished, there was a silence. Then you heard this roar coming from outside the Abbey," says guest Elizabeth Emanuel, who codesigned Diana's wedding dress. "The crowd was clapping and it just swept through the Abbey." Perhaps it was no coincidence that later in the day the Palace discussed restoring the style Her Royal Highness, of which Diana had been stripped at the time of her divorce last year. (Earl Spencer declined, saying his sister wouldn't have wanted it after her death.)

As Diana's body was placed in the hearse for its journey to Althorp House (see story on page 112), the world was left to begin weighing her legacy. One aspect of it was the continued outpouring of grief; three days after the funeral, the tide of flowers surrounding Kensington Palace had risen to waist-level. "There's lots of unresolved sorrow," says Gary Luff, a construction manager from Reading who drove to the palace with his wife, Sandrine, the day after the service. "I had to be here with everyone else to finally believe she's gone."

But hardly forgotten. Elton John, for his part, went directly from Westminster Abbey to the Abbey Road studio to record his new version of "Candle in the Wind." Scheduled to be released Sept. 13, it could raise as much as $16 million for the princess's charities, he hopes. The track is also to be included on an all-star charity tribute album—Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have signed on—that Virgin Records impresario Richard Branson plans to issue before Christmas. "The idea is to do an album which reflects Diana's life," says Branson, who attended the funeral of his friend and tennis partner.

In addition, since Diana's death, more than $150 million from friends and strangers alike has poured into the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, set up on Sept. 2 by Kensington Palace to support her favorite charities. One check, in the amount of $4.5 million, came from an anonymous donor; others from children sending in their meager savings. Mohamed Al Fayed pledged $7.5 million in donations to causes with which Diana had a personal connection.

For some, though, nothing yet has brought consolation. As London's bankers and publicans returned to their daily bustle in the days after the funeral, others still wandered the streets laying flowers, leaving cards and lighting candles, hoping to keep the memory of their lost princess alive for just a little longer. "Seeing the people in the parks, at night with the candlelight under the trees, was reassuring," says Branson. "There's hope of seeing her life wasn't in vain. The mood of the world is different."

LYDIA DENWORTH, SIMON PERRY, KAREN NICKEL ANHALT and PETER MIKELBANK in London

  • Contributors:
  • Lydia Denworth,
  • Simon Perry,
  • Karen Nickel Anhalt,
  • Peter Mikelbank.