Rita MacNeil’s funeral began in the little white country church on the hill with the glorious view of the Bras d’Or Lakes, and ended in the fire hall next door with an old-fashioned ceilidh and cash bar – exactly as she planned.
What she couldn’t have planned was the outpouring of emotion as about 400 people – friends, family, fans from near and far, a couple of politicians – came out to pay tribute to the singer, songwriter and Canadian icon who never fell out of love with her Cape Breton home.
In June, 2012, Ms. MacNeil hand-wrote a note to her children, Laura Lewis and Wade Langham, explaining precisely how she wanted to say goodbye. They had no idea that it existed, only discovering the note after she died, when it fell out of the envelope containing her will.
Describing it as a “last chuckle” from her mom, who had a self-deprecating sense of humour and a lot of humility, Ms. Lewis read it at the service: “Upon my death I would want to be cremated immediately. My ashes to be placed in my tearoom teapot – two if necessary.”
She continued reading: “A small service at St. Mary’s Church, Big Pond; a few words and simple prayers. I want my song, Weary Travelers, to be played. A party at the fire hall to follow with cash bar and my nieces and nephew to play.” Ms. MacNeil added that she wanted her ashes scattered around her tea room, which is just down the highway from the church. “You are welcome to use this teapot if we run out of tea one day …” her daughter read.
The 250 people, who packed the tiny 122-year-old church, burst into laughter. But then the moving words from Weary Travelers – “Now the road that lies before me doesn’t seem so far today. We are all weary travelers, traveling on, traveling on …” – had people dabbing their eyes.
It was that kind of funeral.
Displayed at the front of the church, on a small table covered in a blue tartan, was the teapot urn, a picture of Ms. MacNeil and one of her trademark fedoras – a bright red one.
Ms. MacNeil grew up in Big Pond, a dot along the highway to nearby Sydney. About 200 people live in the village, their homes scattered on the hills on one side or along the lake shore on the other. She died last Tuesday in hospital in Sydney from complications from abdominal surgery. She was 68.
Her death was sudden and a surprise to everyone – and not only was the church packed but also the fire hall where the service was broadcast.
Lynn Pronk worked for more than 10 years at Rita’s Tea Room, recalling how Ms. MacNeil would make spaghetti and meatballs and served the staff for their season-closing party.
“She wanted to wait on us,” Ms. Pronk said. “We’d sing, we’d play guitars and pianos. It would be fun.”
Mike and Sandra Knickle drove eight hours from Shelburne, a small community on Nova Scotia’s south shore, for the service. Mr. Knickle said he couldn’t get enough of her voice; he has attended more than 50 concerts over the years. At each one, he presented her with a rose, as she sang his favourite song – I’ll Accept the Rose.
“I suppose today is going to be the last rose,” he said. “Sorry I’m teary-eyed, but that’s me at this moment.”
Dianna Smart-Jenkins and her husband, Terry, from Dundas, Ont., arrived in Cape Breton on the weekend. Ms. Smart-Jenkins lost her sight 25 years ago. Long-time fans of Ms. MacNeil’s, the couple became good friends with her. Ms. Smart-Jenkins credits her song, Flying on My Own, with inspiring her and helping her cope with the fact that she was going blind.
“When you hear that, you could do anything,” she said.
Former CTV CEO and philanthropist Ivan Fecan and his wife, Sandra Faire, who produced many of Ms. MacNeil’s television specials, were among the mourners. They were in London when they heard of her death – and quickly made arrangements to get to Big Pond.
Premier Darrell Dexter attended, saying he felt this was the “appropriate place for me to remember an iconic figure.”