Monday, April 8, 2013

A Beautiful Final Tribute to Roger Ebert

"Roger didn't just dominate his profession, he defined it." - Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaking in tribute at the funeral of Roger Ebert.

I attended the funeral of Roger Ebert this morning at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The day started out overcast and rainy; I could have easily said, "It's a lousy day," and skipped going. But after what Ebert went through? How could I even think of not attending? I am so thankful I did.

The ceremony was the traditional Roman Catholic ceremony, performed so simply and beautifully by three priests backed by a choir and organist. The priest who delivered the eulogy (sorry I don't have his name), also teaches film classes at Loyola University in Chicago and knew Roger and his wife Chaz quite well and spoke about their discussions of life and film.

He mentioned how certain 20th century authors such as Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh had all found "a dark place." Ebert, to the priest's way of thinking has also "made a discovery in the darkness," and as a life-long Catholic, "had found a different Jesus." Quoting from the 2002 film The Hours in which Nicole Kidman portrayed the author Virginia Woolf, he repeated one of her lines: "To love life for what it is." Clearly Ebert always shared that sentiment, even after cancer robbed him of many of his everyday activities.

Towards the end of the ceremony, several dignitaries and one co-worker from the Chicago Sun Times spoke in tribute. Mayor Emanuel started things off in a light-hearted way, saying that when he was growing up and wanted to see a movie, there were two things he had to know; "what time did it start and what did Roger Ebert think of it?" That comment drew a nice laugh from the large crowd (not quite overflow, but almost a full house). Emanuel ended up his speech by talking about all of Roger's work, be it a film critic, journalists, author, tv host, blogger, et al. "What Roger loved most of all was living."

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois called Ebert, "a righteous oak. We thank God for his purposeful life." Jonathan Jackson, son of civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson, read a brief tribute from his father as well as one from filmmaker Spike Lee, who reminded us that Ebert was one of the few critics who understood the message of Lee's film Do The Right Thing, back in 1989. His boss at the Sun-Times (I do not have his name), said that he never had to worry about Ebert getting his work in on time, adding that "Roger was 24/7 before any of us ever heard that term."

Finally it was time for Ebert's wife Chaz to speak. Amidst a standing ovation, she admitted that she wondered about getting out of bed this morning to attend to this and that speaking was the farthest thing from her mind. "But I knew that Roger would have wanted me to speak." Adding a charming human touch, she pointed to her dazzling hat she wore for the occasion and said, "Besides, Roger loved this hat."

Her brief speech was lovely and heartfelt. "Roger was a champion for social justice. He had such a big heart." She finished by saying "I feel like Roger is here with us."

The hymn Amazing Grace was played during the middle of the ceremony. One line in this hymn struck me as very appropriate for this day.

"Tiz grace that brought me safe thus far,
"And grace will lead me home."

Through his marvelous life, Roger Ebert touched the hearts of so many people. Here was a cathedral filled with mourners not for a politician, not for a world leader, not for an athlete but for a film critic. Clearly he went far beyond his duties in that role to tell us a message about living life to the fullest. Yes, Roger Ebert is heading home, a man draped in God's grace.

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