The year 2023 is about to turn into 2024.

The Crown, a televisions series treatment of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is currently playing on Netflix. The series includes two funerals, one for Princess Diana, the other for her deceased lover, Dodi Fayed. The funerals occur in season 6, episode 4.

The current media debate is about whether the depiction is historically accurate.

It’s not.

It’s fiction.

The ceremonies in the series are fictive rituals.


I’m remembering a discussion I had with my daughter Cailleah in 1997 when Diana died in Paris.

Diana died when she was thirty-six. Cailleah will be thirty-six in March—enough to spook a father.

The day of Princess Diana’s funeral Cailleah asked, “Dad, did you know her?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“I don’t mean, did you know her. I mean did you know much about her before she died?”

“Only a little. I saw her on television.”

“Well, I don’t know who she was or anything about her until today. It makes me sad, really, really sad.”

I said, “Diana was a princess. I guess that’d be enough to make a nine-year old girl sad.”

Not about to let me explain away her feelings, much less with a stereotype, Cailleah set me straight, “No, I don’t mean that kinda stuff. I mean all these things they are saying and doing on television make me sad.”

Then she added, almost as an afterthought, “And that she died, of course.”

Cailleah, now a film director, hopes to get a job working in television, where pay is more reliable than working on full-length fictional films that can make people happy or sad.


Sunday morning, the day after the funeral, Michael Enright on CBC Radio said to Canadians at brunch that we keep distracting ourselves with ceremony.

Funerals do distract. In the middle of chaos and loss, rituals construct a countervailing order—in the British case, one marked by a slow and stately rhythm.

After a high-speed chase through the streets of Paris, what could be more comforting than a slow, stately walk behind a gun carriage accompanied by Welsh guards through the streets of London?

Funerary decorum is hard to break in public and difficult to criticize openly. Like any rite of passage, a funeral erects a safety net, allowing participants to fall—but only so far. After that, a ritual net yanks participants up—just short of hitting the ground at high velocity.

The cobbled together funeral for Diana was partly tradition, partly improvisation, partly adaptation. The funeral elevated, maybe anesthetized, the pain.

The almost-royal funeral for the princess was a distraction from pain and other hard realities of life. But also the opposite—the funeral took us to a place where we hurt, even if we didn’t know the woman.

Among television and radio commentators, it seemed there were only two possibilities. Either you cried for Diana or distracted yourself. If you distracted yourself, you had two options. You could wrap yourself in the soft blanket of the funeral, or you could put your face to the hard wall of reality by pondering Diana as a media-creation.

We were told that Diana was a creation of the media, that she used media, and media used her. The media used Diana’s funeral to make viewers weep. Without television, fewer would have cried, fewer would have participated in the globally televised funeral and media-induced mourning.


On the day of the funeral you couldn’t buy blank video tapes in Montreal. The stores had sold all of them. People were at home taping, so they could re-live the funeral until their grief was fully spent.

It can be spiritually educational to know how long you can meditate, how long you can sit still, how many times you can spill tears. By video recording the funeral, television viewers could take a souvenir of a historic event, witness a spectacle, peek at royalty and wail privately with the public. Diana may have been the object of our keening, but her televised and taped funeral was a way to protract the ritual, to repeat it and repeat it.


The afternoon of Diana’s funeral my son Bryn and I walked through La Baie, a department store in downtown Montreal. An elderly woman had come in from the streets. She sat on the floor surrounded, almost invisible, by three large-screen television sets and her array of plastic Metro grocery store bags.

She was leaning into Westminster Cathedral from Montreal. Her face was flushed, her eyes swollen and her cheeks wet with tears.

The scene took me to a place, an emotional zone, I’m seldom able to reach unassisted. For a while there were two camps. In the camp of the soft hearted, we cried shamelessly in our innocence. The tears were heartfelt. They needed no justification. They made perfect sense of Diana’s physical beauty, regal bearing, candid comments, premature death, and humanity toward those less fortunate than herself. She was a secular saint, or if not, then a warm human being and a good mother. Why shouldn’t we weep at such a loss?

In the camp of the hard hearted, where we critics huddled around our televisions, Diana was an empty cipher, a mirror devoid of content. She had no real self. This Diana was a creation of the media. Bereft of cameras, she was nothing—less than a squashed pumpkin at midnight lying on a cobblestone road leading away from the prince lingering in the ballroom.

“Sad she died,” we said,” but that’s life. No television, no tears.”

Why weep any more for Princess Diana than for any other human being?

What kind of mourning is virtual mourning anyway?

The way of innocence would have us pretend there was no camera between Diana and Diana-watchers. This way would require watchers to ignore the obvious—that we hardly knew the woman or cared about her life. The way of naivete would make the deceased Diana a revelation, the appearance of Absolute Being.

I admit it. I long to recover innocence, even though I never, even as a child, had it.

I long for a revelation of the divine, even though my first response would be to doubt it.

The way of cynicism would make Diana’s life, death and funeral a sham and would tempt viewers to forget there was a real human life in front of the cameras.

The skeptical eye would do the same to me or my daughter if the cameras were turned on us.

Do we really have to choose between theatrical sham and revelatory purity? Only if we forget the funeral. It mediated between extremes. Diana’s funeral was a media event but also a ritual event.

During the televised funeral proceedings, the network anchors were accompanied by specialists in British royalty, politics and society, but few who said anything insightful about the funeral rite. The commentary was banal or non-existent. Commentary took the form: And now here is So-and-So, the duke and duchess of Such-and-Such. There go the guards. This is Westminster Cathedral where A-Famous-Whoever is buried.

The ritual itself was avoided. What little discussion there was of the it took the form of an inquiry about which actions and objects and places were typical of a royal funeral and which were improvised. But even this kind of analysis was sporadic and piecemeal. Recognition of the elements of the funeral and explanations of the ways rituals work or fail to work was missing.

Commentators lingered on Diana’s brother’s eulogy and the emotional impact of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” Words and songs were treated as the real stuff.

Applause arose outside Westminster Cathedral and rippled through the doors. Instead of being ignored, the applause was taken up inside the cathedral by those most privy to the mortuary proceedings. No mere breach of decorum, this spontaneous popular applause overtook the liturgical and verbal gestures of the funeral.

The rest—gestures, postures, movements—was window dressing, good to film but not worth analyzing.

It was a relief to have so much dead air space. Silence is rare on television. But I don’t fool myself. The silence arose more from ignorance than reverence.

Being analytical or critical during a funeral shatters the decorum of the event. After the funeral it’s worth reflecting on the cadence of the walk, the tones of voice, the mediation of public and sacred space, the effect of dressing up and dressing down, the relationship between ceremonial traditions and spontaneous actions.

When does the funeral end?

  • After the ceremony in Westminster Cathedral?
  • After Diana’s private burial on an island?
  • When the books of condolence closed?
  • When the last flower is deposited at Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris where Diana and Doty died?
  • When the last person weeps while watching a video of the actual funeral?
  • When watching The Crown on Netflix?
  • Then re-watching The Crown on Netflix?

Deaths don’t make most of us cry unless we are closely related to the deceased. But maybe it’s good to mourn those we don’t know. One of the reasons humans enact funeral rites is to train us in the art of grieving.

It is better to grieve than not, and some grieve with more facility than others. Grief is taught and learned, and funerals are one of the means of instruction.

To say that grief is learned is to say that it is cultural. But saying that something is cultural doesn’t mean that it isn’t also biological, political, psychological and spiritual.

Some of us learn to minimize grief or to deny it altogether. Every human activity from breathing to eating to defecating to weeping is choreographed. However natural these actions are, they are also canvases on which religions and cultures put their stamp.

Poor funerals stifle grief. Effective ones bestow the gift of tears. Funerals help people find their grief, even if that grief is left over from some other death, and the mourning is really for someone other than the deceased.

Even if you didn’t know the woman, even if you could have cared less, it felt good to feel bad watching Diana’s funeral.

It was good to grieve with the world, the one that includes your daughter or son or brother or sister or mother or father or grandparent or president or….

Princess Diana’s funeral rite didn’t just distract us from pain, it conjured pain.

That’s what funerals are for.