Spontaneous shrines popped up all around the world, including in New Zealand, but if Diana had died today the public response, fuelled by social media, might have been bigger still

Opinion: What does it mean for tens of millions of people to mourn for someone they’ve never met? A ‘parasocial relationship’ is one-sided – often with a celebrity or media persona. Diana, Princess of Wales’s death revealed that many people around the world had this type of connection to the softly spoken former nanny, whose journey into (and out of) the world of the British monarchy captivated the public.

The media image of Diana was often idealised – from the romantic ideal of the youthful bride, to the ‘People’s Princess’, and the compassionate humanitarian. Some people also charged the media with manipulating the public, after her death, to orchestrate the storm of grief that followed.

Whatever role they had, the response went beyond a reaction to Diana as a person, and quickly became a political statement.

Spontaneous memorialisation

The mass response to Diana’s death remains one of the most famous examples of ‘spontaneous memorialisation’.

Many mourning activities are formally prescribed – in time, place, and format – by religious or cultural institutions. By contrast, spontaneous memorialisation refers to an improvised, informal, and participatory public response. It occurs more commonly after unexpected or violent deaths, and those that are highly publicised. Diana’s death met all of those criteria.

Spontaneous memorialisation typically focuses on the accumulation of tributes at ad hoc public ‘shrines’. Many will remember the images of the street in front of Kensington Palace – where Diana lived – covered in layers and layers of floral tributes, cards and other memorial items. These piles reached more than 9m back from the gates. Tributes also piled up at Buckingham Palace, and at St James’s Palace, tied to the fences, piled up on the ground. At times it took hours for people who had made the pilgrimage to these locations, to move through the crowds, and lay their offerings.

But it was even bigger than that. Spontaneous shrines popped up all around the world, including in New Zealand. Many here will also remember themselves or their parents participating in some form of memorial activity.

Through shared participation in mourning rituals, people can come to feel connected not only to the person who has died, but also to each other, as part of an (in this case global) ‘community of mourning’. Diana’s death brought together people from all walks of life. Anthropologists have observed how rituals create liminal states in which people experience ‘communitas’ – a sense of being bonded to each other through shared feeling, and temporarily outside of normal social structures and hierarchies. Yet in some ways, the response to Diana’s death was all about hierarchy …

Crowd vs crown

Diana and Prince Charles had officially divorced the year before her death, and she lost her status as a royal. The ambiguity of her position created an unusual situation. Initially, there were no plans for a ceremonial or State funeral for her. In fact, the Queen and the rest of the royal family stayed in Scotland, where they had been at the time of her death, for another five days afterwards –despite tabloids calling for the Queen to come to London to ‘lead the nation’s grief’ .

The subtle changes in the monarchy since – including in her own children’s ways of engaging with the public and the media – might have reduced the need to use those gestures of grief to push back against a cold-feeling Crown

The death of a public figure can often act as a sort of ‘cultural flashpoint’: inspiring people to reflect on norms, hopes, and anxieties of the society they live in. Grief scholar Tony Walter has suggested the monarchy’s actions heightened the contrast between Diana’s warm and vulnerable style in the media, and the typical formality of the Windsors. The public’s extravagant response, in defiance of the formal withholding of recognition, indicated that citizens were coming to desire a “hugging monarchy” – a new, more human version of The Crown.

The claiming and reshaping of public space outside of the three Palaces, by the crowds that gathered, was a manifestation of this struggle between the establishment and popular sentiment.

After mass tragedy, spontaneous shrines in public space can fulfil two roles: they can be markers of grief, and they can be expressions of discontent or protest. Improvised shrines at the sites of school shootings in the USA are good examples of this. So too was the public memorial activity in Christchurch, after the 2019 white supremacist terrorist attack on two mosques.

Social media and spontaneous memorialisation today

Diana’s death was not the first instance of spontaneous memorialisation, but it was certainly less common at the time than it is now. If Diana had died in 2022, instead of 1997, would the public process of mourning have been much different?

Today, during times of tragedy, social media not only helps to coordinate public responses (eg spreading the word about where flowers are being laid, or when gatherings are happening) but can also itself become an alternative site for memorialisation. In New Zealand, we saw this when the first outbreak of Covid-19 cancelled the national remembrance service for the Christchurch mosque attacks on the one-year anniversary. Encouraged by the city’s mayor to take the memorial activity online instead, the RNZ’s digital ‘living flower wall’ was ready to capture tributes and messages. Many people also left images and statements on their own timelines.

This carried on patterns from directly after the attack, when my own research shows that many people did gain a sense of mourning with others, just from following the vigils on social media, watching livestreamed musical tributes, changing their profile banners, or donating to crowdfunding campaigns. The comments people linked to these actions often (subtly or overtly) expressed political or social values – for example, emphasising ‘common humanity’, multiculturalism, belonging, and so on.

If Diana had died today the public response, fuelled by social media, might have been bigger still. The subtle changes in the monarchy since – including in her own children’s ways of engaging with the public and the media – might have reduced the need to use those gestures of grief to push back against a cold-feeling Crown. However, her death would likely still have led to responses that were not only about her as an individual, but about reflecting on the society in which she lived and died. And both contribute to the huge significance of the public’s mourning. 

Dr Susan Wardell is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Otago

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