It was an appropriately gray, overcast and rainy morning for the funeral of beloved film critic Roger Ebert at the Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago.
Some of the people lined up outside the church had been there since last night, which was marked with heavy rain, for a chance to pay their respects to the man whom Illinois Governor Pat Quinn called a “true populist.”
The cathedral was packed with hundreds. Among the dignitaries, politicians and fans were Ebert’s wife Chaz, his step-daughters and step-grandchildren and other family members; and filmmakers such as Gregory Nava and Steve James.
The service itself was a solemn Catholic Mass. (Michael Kutza, founder and director of the Chicago International Film festival whispered to me, “C’mon, you’re going to be Catholic today.”) Though Ebert himself was admittedly a non-practicing Catholic, people spoke of the common spirituality and search for redemption that he found in films and religion.
Among those who gave tributes were Governor Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former Sun-Times publisher John Barron, who said that above all Roger was “a newspaperman.”
Barron also remarked how Roger was way ahead of the curve in the use of technology as the first person he knew to use a computer, email and becoming a Twitter fanatic. “Roger was 24/7 before anyone had even thought of that term.”
Others who spoke included one of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s sons, Jonathan, who first conveyed his father’s words of support and prayer to Ebert’s family, and then spoke from the heart, praising Roger for his unwavering support for black cinema. “I look at Roger as a soldier with a pen… He respected what we had to say about ourselves.”
Jackson also read a letter from Spike Lee who conveyed his condolences to Ebert’s family and thanked Roger for all the years of kind reviews and the unwavering support he gave Spike throughout his career.
In a tearful address, Sonia Evans, one of Chaz’s daughters and Roger’s step-daughter, talked about Roger as the loving and devoted family man she knew and loved: “He always saw such special things in people. He realized connecting with people is the main reason we’re here.”
But it was Chaz herself, who received two standing ovations and who decided at the last moment to say a few words, that was the emotional highpoint of the funeral and gave a heartfelt, joyful and at times funny tribute to her late husband.
Full of humor, she remarked how Roger “would have loved this. He would have loved the majesty of it. He would have loved everything about it. He would have loved that we’re all here for him.”
But, as she reminded the gathering, that not only was Roger a film critic, but “a soldier for social justice” and added that “no matter your race, creed, color or sexual preference, he had a heart big enough to accept and love all.”
At the end, despite the emotional outpouring of fond memories and tearful remembrances, the funeral itself was far from a sad and joyless occasion. It was instead a loving farewell to a special person who lived a rich and full life and whose undying passion for films, writing about films and for life itself transcended any grief and joy.
And when the funeral was over, the sun came out.
(Note: On Thursday a memorial tribute for Ebert will be held at the Chicago Theater which will be open to the public and will include films clips and musical performances with filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities expected to be present as well)