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Diana’s home village looks set to become a shrine

September 2, 1997

GREAT BRINGTON, England (AP) _ Outside the tall iron gates of Princess Diana’s ancestral home, candles, gifts and balloons nestle in a sea of flowers. Villagers believe it may be the makings of a shrine.

For it is to the tiny local church of St. Mary the Virgin that Diana’s body will come after her funeral service Saturday in London’s Westminster Abbey.

She will be buried close to her beloved father, the eighth Earl Spencer, and among 20 generations of forebears going back almost five centuries.

``It is right she should come back here _ it is her home,″ said Irishman Tom Regan, who came early today to Althorp House, where Diana was raised, to mourn her death.

``But look at all this _ it reminds me of Graceland,″ he said, referring to Elvis Presley’s Memphis, Tenn., home, which has become a virtual shrine since the singer’s death.

Villagers worry about the burden that may fall on this rural hamlet propped against the shoulder of an emerald hill if Diana’s admirers come in large numbers, emulating the hordes of Elvis fans.

``My initial reaction was `great, this is where she should be.′ But then I thought about the implications for the village,″ said Great Brington postmistress Christine Whiley.

``We are a very quiet village and this will bring a lot more people for a long time to come. We don’t want it to turn into a circus, so we just hope that people will remember that the church is a place of worship.″

Nevertheless, Britain’s churches have long offered a focus for pilgrims. Over the centuries, they have encouraged visitors to tour the graves of monarchs, priests and other notables; Westminster Abbey, where many British kings are buried, was designed with that in mind.

Jean MacPherson, whose husband David is the priest in charge at St. Mary’s, is also concerned about the impact of Diana’s death on this close community of 200 near Northampton, 50 miles northwest of London.

``I spoke to the church warden and he was horrified because he felt it would not only be this week, but there would be tremendous interest for years to come,″ she said.

``I hope it won’t taint the character of the village, but it’s possible.″

Great Brington, which has a post office and pub, but no public parking, first began attracting visitors after Diana married Prince Charles in 1981, but interest declined after their 1996 divorce.

Laying a candle outside Althorp House, marketing executive Harry Druce from the neighboring village of Ecton said the best memorial to the princess who campaigned so hard against land mines ``would be an international ban named after her. That would be really lasting.″

The 13th century St. Mary’s with its square steeple and small tidy churchyard is a mile from Althorp House.

Diana will be interred in the Spencer family’s private chapel in the church’s northeast corner. It is visible through a row of blue and gold ornamental iron railings.

Many of the tombs carry ornate effigies of their occupants. Among them is Lawrence Washington, great-great-great grandfather of George Washington, a cousin of the Spencers.

The first Spencer to be buried there was Sir John Spencer, who bought Althorp in 1508.

Diana’s brother Charles, the ninth earl, who has returned from his home in South Africa to supervise funeral arrangements, has said only immediate family will attend the burial ceremony.

Betty Andrews, 76, a former cook and housekeeper at Althorp, said Diana loved the estate, with its rambling, wooded grounds.

``Looking back, it was probably the happiest time of her life,″ she said. ``You get the sense that she is coming home. Her father is buried there, I am sure it is what she would have wanted.″

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