The first mourners arrived outside Kensington Palace before dawn. News of Diana's fatal car crash had reached the U.K. in the middle of the night, and the response in London and throughout Great Britain was spontaneous and overwhelming. Mourners wept—and they paid tribute.
"I just feel disbelief more than shock," Fiona von Schank, a student who brought two roses to leave at Kensington Palace, told CNN on August 31, 1997. "It's amazing that this woman who finally seemed to have just about found some happiness has now died so tragically."
The unexpected displays of public grief by the stereotypically stiff-upper-lipped Brits continued in the days between Diana's death and her funeral, with people standing in line to sign books of condolence—at their peak, wait times lasted 12 hours—and creating impromptu memorials not only at Diana's home residence of Kensington Palace, but also Buckingham Palace, and St James Palace, where her body was taken upon arrival from Paris.
The blanket of flowers left outside Kensington Palace from above.
In the recent documentary Diana, Our Mother, Prince Harry, who was just 12 at the time of his mother's passing recalled, "It was very, very strange after her death, the sort of outpouring of love and emotion from so many people that had never even met her."
And it was an outpouring of raw emotion. People were seen crying, wailing even, in sorrow, and according to officials, 10 to 15 tons of bouquets and 60 million flowers were left in honor of Diana around London. Candles, stuffed animals, flags, photographs, and personal notes were also left.
Prince Charles alongside Prince William and Prince Harry looking at the tributes to Princess Diana.
People needed to do something with their heartache, to leave a physical marker indicating their love for Diana, a performative act of grief that was almost contagious.
"It's completely unprecedented. It's an occasion that is unique possibly in the history of the world and certainly in anyone's experience here," David Welch of the Royal Parks service, who eventually helped with the cleanup, said at the time.
The sea of blooms remained for over a week, growing steadily. During Diana's funeral on September 6, the hearse had to use its wipers to remove stems that were thrown at the windshield as it carried the coffin from Westminster Abbey to Diana's final resting place in Althorp. At one point, it even had to pull over to remove the flowers.
But the impromptu memorials were temporary, and by September 11, volunteers began cleaning up the unplanned tributes. According to CNN, decaying blooms were used as compost in the Kensington Palace gardens, while still-fresh blooms were sent to hospitals and nursing homes, and toys were donated to children in need, something the Princess surely would have loved.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.