The seven days which began on 31 August 1997 with news of the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and ended on 6 September with her funeral are unlikely to be forgotten by those, like myself, who lived through them.
I will always remember the sight of her coffin, draped in the multicoloured Royal Standard flag arriving at RAF Northolt. The Queen’s Colour Squadron acted as pallbearers, carrying their royal burden from the plane at a slow march across the tarmac to the waiting hearse. It was the moment that the realisation of her death in a car crash in Paris, at first such an unbelievable shock, could no longer be denied.
In the week that followed pavements in front of the three Royal palaces in London disappeared under tens of millions of flowers; hundreds of thousands of people queued stoically to sign books of condolence; messages of sympathy flooded in, and millions of people lined the funeral route or watched at home.
Not since the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, which I was too young to recall properly, had the eyes of the world been so fixated on one tragic event.
Within five days of the Princess’ death, another major female player on the global stage, Mother Teresa passed away at the Mother House in Kolkata. She had finally succumbed to several years of deteriorating health, dying from cardiac arrest at the age of 87 years.
Following Diana’s tragic death, Mother Teresa issued the following statement:
“Diana was extremely sympathetic to poor people and very lively, and homely too. All the sisters and I are praying for her and for all members of her family.”
They were often described in the media as friends, and one of the iconic photographs of the last century is of the pair holding hands outside the missionary house in the Bronx, New York.
To some it may seem an unlikely friendship indeed. After all what could a pampered princess, the darling of the Media and a fashion icon have in common with a little Albanian nun, working in slum conditions with the poorest of the poor, possessing only a sari and sandals? When Diana went to sleep in Kensington Palace or lush European apartments and stately homes, Mother Teresa lay down on a small single bed, in a tiny cell-like room with scant furniture.
Mother Teresa and Diana had one thing in common and that was their compassion for humanity.
While teaching and serving as a principal at Loreto House, a fashionable girls’ college in Kolkata Mother Teresa became depressed by the destitute and dying on the city’s streets, the homeless street urchins, the ostracised sick people lying in alleys, a prey to rats. In 1946, she received a “call within a call”, as she described it. “The message was clear. I was to leave the convent and help the poor, while living among them,” she said.
Some people mocked Diana for being a clothes horse who loved holidaying but in fact it was her way of using her fame and ability to grab the media spotlight in order to help good causes. Typically, she chose some of the most controversial and difficult areas to champion.
When opening the first specialist AIDS unit at a British hospital in 1987, the princess made a point of being photographed shaking hands with patients, without wearing gloves. When she hugged another Aids patient, she changed the way millions thought about this terrible disease.
In the 1990s she became involved in the international efforts to ban landmines, a campaign which had previously received scant support. And it was her commitment to other, often overlooked causes, such as mental health, homelessness, drugs and learning disabilities that had a similar impact on public consciousness.
Allied to her great compassion was the gift of communication. She could relate to people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Like Diana, Mother Teresa drew energy from personal one-on-one contact with people and consciously chose to live as simply as the poor she befriended and tended.
In 1999 The Diana Award was established by a board chaired by Gordon Brown. This is given out to selfless young role models, who like Diana, are transforming the lives others and creating and sustaining positive change in their communities and around the world.
Mother Teresa will live on – first and foremost through the worldwide Missionaries of Charity which she developed. She will continue to challenge us – particularly in the West about how we treat those who are in need.
Although they were from two totally different worlds their friendship proved that compassion could cross any boundaries.
United in Death
One of the items brought to the hospital after Diana’s death was a rosary that Mother Teresa had given her. The late princess’ s Butler, Paul Burrell had gathered up a few things from her Kensington apartment to take to France and the beads were included.
When he arrived in Paris with her driver, Colin Tebbut they visited the hospital to pay their last respects. Tebbut then gave the nurse who was on duty the rosary beads, asking her to place them in Diana’s hands. His request was carried out; the rosary was there when her sisters and Prince Charles arrived. They were placed in her coffin along with a picture of her two sons.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan