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Keeping the Flame Alive

What was the biggest news-story of the past twenty years? I think it was 9/11, the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. But that involved the deaths of hundreds of people and the destruction of giant buildings. The biggest story about a single person has to be the death of Diana in 1997. It made headlines for weeks, brought huge crowds onto the streets, and shook the British monarchy to its foundations.

But how long have those two stories lasted? 9/11 is still shaping history and affecting millions of lives. It’s remembered and talked about every day. You could say that 9/11 was an explosion whose echoes are still sounding in the ears of the world. Diana’s death, by contrast, seemed to fade slowly into silence. At the time, it seemed like an event that might re-shape history. Emotions surged like tidal waves. Millions of people grieved for a woman they had never met and vowed that they would never forget her

They haven’t, but there is a difference between never forgetting and always remembering. Her sons William and Harry have always remembered their mother. They must think of her every day of their lives. If they didn’t, they would feel guilty. It’s important to us that our deceased loved ones stay in our thoughts and our hearts. But that can be difficult. Life moves on. We meet new people and have new experiences. Fresh memories crowd out old memories. That’s one reason that we create something physical to commemorate our loved ones: a gravestone or some other kind of memorial. They have gone but the memorial is there to remind us and renew their memory.

This may be one reason that Diana’s death faded into silence: her grave can’t be visited by the public. Her brother, Earl Spencer, buried her on an island in a lake at Althorpe, the ancient family estate in Lincolnshire. Although visitors can tour Althorpe, they can’t visit the island. Diana had a very public death, but she lies at rest in complete privacy. That must be what the Spencer family wanted. They know that she would almost certainly still be alive if she had not become such a public figure. If she hadn’t married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, she would never have become so interesting to the media. Those astonishing abilities of hers – to win hearts and seduce the camera-lens – wouldn’t have found such a big stage. She wouldn’t have been chased and harried by the paparazzi for so long.

And so she wouldn’t have died in that tunnel beneath the streets of Paris nearly twenty years ago today. She was doomed by becoming a public figure. I think that’s one message sent by her private grave on that inaccessible island in Lincolnshire. Perhaps the Spencers want her to fade from the world’s memory and become important only to those who truly knew and loved her. But whatever the Spencers’ feelings are, they know that Diana was a public figure – indeed, a global figure, an icon of the twentieth century.

And the twentieth anniversary of her death is fast approaching. Diana will be back in the headlines and the media will try to satisfy their curiosity about her resting-place. There has been criticism that the island is being “neglected”, becoming overgrown with vegetation. Earl Spencer has explained that he wanted his sister’s grave to become “part of the ancient landscape over time”. The Spencers have lived at the estate for eighteen generations, after all. Althorpe was part of Diana’s life and her grave would become part of Althorpe.

That may have been the plan, at least, but now the island is being renovated with the rest of the gardens at Althorpe. The Spencers know that their private wishes for Diana have to take into account the opinions of thousands of journalists and countless millions of Diana’s fans and admirers. When the twentieth anniversary of her death arrives, they want to make sure that the island isn’t criticized for being “overgrown”.

But it’s going to be interesting to see what else is said during the anniversary. How strong have memories of Diana remained? How much does she mean to the millions of people under the age of thirty who don’t remember her passing or weren’t even born when it took place? The Spencers will be at the heart of the anniversary and I don’t envy their situation. Most families can make decisions about how to remember their loved ones away from the glare of publicity. That isn’t possible for a family that loses someone as famous and widely loved as Diana.