The World Is Small: Why 1 Billion People Watched Princess Diana's Funeral

Diana, Princess of Wales
Princess Diana at Wimbledon July 5,1985. The 20th anniversary of her death is at the end of August. REUTERS/Peter Skingley CMC

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Why Diana Moved Us So" on September 7, 1998. With the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death approaching, Newsweek is republishing the story.

AT THE TIME IT WAS A MYSTERY. A DIVORCED member of the royal family of a medium-sized European nation dies in a banal car accident in Paris, and for a week the sun, moon and stars are knocked off their appointed tracks. Within days, Europe suffers a shortage of cut flowers as tens of thousands of bouquets are laid before the house of the victim. Demand for newsprint soars; the funeral, watched live on television throughout the world, attracts an audience of 1 billion.

A year later, the mystery remains. What was the Diana phenomenon all about? The easy answer is nothing -- or at least, nothing of lasting moment. The Queen, so criticized during Diana Week, is still on her throne; Diana's former husband, Prince Charles, is more popular than he has been for years. The French authorities are still looking for the white Fiat Uno. Real news -- terrorism, Russia, Bill Clinton's sex life, two pregnant Spice Girls -- knocks the event from the front pages. And we wonder: those flowers, that grief, "The People's Princess" -- were they all just a way of marking the end of summer, a break from the reality that wafts back each year with the cool of autumn?

Before conventional wisdom assigns Diana the role of weird historical footnote, consider another view. Diana Week was like a strange shaft of light that enabled us to see more clearly than ever before the nature of our times. Consider, first, the public displays of grief. This was not feigned. Nor was it whipped up by the media, who, truth to tell, spent a week racing to keep up with the public mood. The reaction to Diana's demise crystallized, perhaps, another death -- that of the virtues that the classicists called Roman. Last year, stoicism, fatalism, muted emotions, all went by the board, as people not only felt, but showed what they felt, without shame. In a Western world where the obligations of religion, deference and submission to a greater cause have lost their sway, feelings, and sharing them, are our only comfort.

The Roman virtues, of course, were masculine ones, and their celebrants male. Diana Week was not a guy thing. Sure, men wept. But Diana's champions were over-whelmingly women. Like many of them, she had a heartless husband, in-laws from hell, fickle boyfriends. She worried about and loved her kids, she wondered what life on her own would be like. Diana Week was a time in which women could celebrate and mourn one who had come through the vicissitudes suffered by millions and found, for a short summer, real happiness.

What other lessons are there to be learned from Diana's death? That the media have become a boundless force, for sure, broadcasting and interpreting events to the ends of the earth. And that the division between the media and their subjects has become blurred -- not just because in her life Diana played the press and TV like a violin, which she surely did, but because the coverage of her became part of the story, in a way that still touches some raw nerves.

Perhaps above all, Diana Week was a true global phenomenon. Globalization has become the decade's most overused word, but at its heart, it embodies a real truth: technology has made this a planet of shared experiences. Because globalization's theorists have primarily been economists, we tend to think of it in economic terms, albeit with political consequences. And as last week proved, we are right to do so -- the effects of a fiscal crisis in Thailand (Thailand!) threatens the comfortable assumption that post-cold-war Russia is, at bottom, just like us.

But there's more to globalization than markets. Diana's death touched people in Peoria as much as in Paris. We are bound together more than we have ever been. Her death showed the world how small it had become, how much in common are our intimate senses and emotions. Remember her.