It was an appropriately gray, overcast and rainy day Monday morning for the funeral of beloved film critic Roger Ebert held at the Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago.
Hundreds of people were lined up outside the church (including several who had waited since the night before, which was marked with heavy rain) just for a chance to pay their respects and say a final goodbye to someone who they considered to be one of their own, or as Illinois Governor Pat Quinn called Ebert, a “true populist.”
The massive cathedral was packed, including Ebert’s wife Chaz, his step-daughters, step-grandchildren and other family members, dignitaries, politicians, VIPS, local and national media, the public, and filmmakers such as Gregory Nava (“El Norte,” “Selena”), who gave a tribute, and Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”), who was unobtrusively filming a documentary about the famous critic.
The service itself was a solemn Catholic Mass. Michael Kutza, the founder and director of the Chicago International Film Festival, whispered to me: “C’mon, You’re going to be Catholic today!” While 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.” Ebert was way ahead of the curve in the use of technology, he added, the first person he knew to use a computer, e-mail and even became a Twitter fanatic; he saw how it would change the face and scope of journalism: “Roger was 24/7 before anyone had even thought of that term.”
Chaz, who received two standing ovations and decided at the last moment
to say a few words, was the emotional highpoint of the funeral and gave
a heartfelt, joyful and at times funny tribute to her late husband, who “would have loved this,” she said. “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.”
reminded the gathering, 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
Others who spoke included Jonathan Jackson, one of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s sons, 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 as a filmmaker.
A tearful Sonia Evans, one of Chaz’s daughters and Roger’s step-daughter talked about Ebert 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.”
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.
A Thursday memorial tribute for Ebert will be held at the Chicago Theater. It will be open to the public and will include films clips and musical performances with filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities expected to be present.
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