It was an appropriately gray, overcast and rainy day this morning for the funeral of beloved film critic Roger Ebert, held at the Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago.
Many people were lined up outside the church (several, since last night, which was marked with heavy rain) just for a chance to pay their respects and say a final goodbye to someone who they considered one of their own, or as whom Illinois Governor Pat Quinn called, a “true populist”.
The cathedral was packed with hundreds of people, including the Ebert family, his wife Chaz, step-daughters and step-grandchildren, and other family members, dignitaries, filmmakers, such as Gregory Nava (El Norte, Selena, Why Do Fools Fall in Love?), who gave a tribute, and Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), as well as politicians, VIPs, and people from local and non-local national media, and just plain regular folks.
The service itself was a solemn Catholic Mass (as Michael Kutza the founder and director of the Chicago International Film festival whispered to me: “C’mon, You’re going to be Catholic today”), and 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, aside from Governor Quinn, were 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, the first person he knew to use a computer, e-mail and even becoming a Twitter fanatic, and how it would change the face and scope of journalism: “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 as a filmmaker.
Sonia Evans, one of Chaz’s daughter and Roger’s step-daughter, in her tearful address, 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 high-point of the funeral, giving 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, not only was Roger a film critic, but "a soldier for social justice,” adding 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.