Family, friends and fans of Rita MacNeil gather at funeral in singer's hometown

BIG POND, N.S. – Relatives, friends and fans of Rita MacNeil gathered at a funeral service Monday for the singer-songwriter in her Nova Scotia hometown of Big Pond, where her musical talents and her sense of humour were remembered.

People packed St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church to pay tribute to the 68-year-old singer, whose cremated remains sat in a teapot alongside a portrait of her.

MacNeil’s daughter, Laura, said she was overwhelmed by the sympathies that have been extended to her family after her mother’s death.

“What a legacy our mother has left for us. She was a very special mom. We loved her deeply and we will miss her deeply,” she said.

“My mom loved to laugh and she had a wonderful sense of humour. She showed us that humour and laughter is a wonderful coping mechanism in hard times.”

MacNeil’s presence in Cape Breton was felt in a variety of ways, ranging from her music to the tea room she opened in 1986.

Laura MacNeil read a handwritten note that her mother left with burial instructions that she described as “a last chuckle.”

“Upon my death, I would want to be cremated immediately, my ashes to be placed in my tea room teapot. Two, if necessary,” she said, prompting laughter from the people who filled the church’s pews and upper balcony.

Premier Darrell Dexter, who was among those who attended the service, said he wanted to pay his respects to a great Nova Scotian who graced the world with her gift of music.

“Rita MacNeil is an iconic individual,” Dexter said. “It’s an opportunity to reflect on the tremendous gifts that Rita gave to the island and to the province and to the world.”

MacNeil worked for decades to become a beloved fixture in Canadian culture, with her greatest success coming after she was in her 40s.

Her powerful voice explored genres from country to folk to gospel as she became one of Cape Breton’s most acclaimed performers.

MacNeil won her first Juno Award in 1987 as Canada’s most promising female vocalist and went on to win the Juno for vocalist of the year in 1990 and country female vocalist of the year in 1991.

MacNeil died last Tuesday following complications from surgery after a recurring infection.