The Commons: A life lived

Canadians gathered in Toronto to celebrate Jack Layton’s life

Jack Layton didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a “celebration of life.” And so that’s what it was. Not just a celebration of a life—though it certainly was that—but a celebration of life.

As the Reverend Brent Hawkes—our guide for this afternoon—said at the outset: we would cry together, but we would laugh together. And so everyone, together, did just that. They cried and they laughed. But not just that: they also cheered and they sang. They prayed and they mourned. They stood and they applauded.

“Jack was so alive,” said Stephen Lewis, the first of four to eulogize the man.

And so was the celebration that brought an end to this remarkable week.

In the middle of the stage, illuminated from above in white light, sat the flag-draped coffin. Before it sat Jack Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow. Around her, his family and loved ones (his beloved granddaughter Beatrice fidgeting in the front row before falling asleep in a family member’s arms). Around them were the distinguished and powerful, here to pay him the respect they command. Behind them sat the NDP caucus, a hundred of them strong. Above all of this were rows and rows of admirers and fans, some of whom had lined up overnight to see this.

On stage it was Anne McGrath, the chief of staff who was like a sister. And Nycole Turmel, the Quebec MP who must mind Mr. Layton’s office in the interim. And Karl Belanger, the loyal press secretary who was forever over Mr. Layton’s shoulder.

There was an aboriginal blessing and a reading from Philippians and a reading from Isaiah and a reading from the Qu’ran. Martin Deschamps hobbled on gleaming crutches and sang of belief. There were cheers for clips from Mr. Layton’s old speeches, forceful words for eternal causes. There were quiet images of that astounding scene in front of city hall. The love of his life and his love of family were honoured. Steven Page sang Hallelujah and Lorraine Segato sang Rise Up and the crowd did as ordered.

Mr. Lewis was fiery and insistent and unabashedly political. Mr. Layton, he said, made politics seem “as natural and good as breathing.” He called out Mr. Layton’s ideals and initiatives and there was applause again and again.

Mike Layton told us about his dad and explained his father’s life as a stubborn, resilient bike trip. He recalled some of his father’s wisdom: “Always have a dream that is longer than a lifetime.”

Sarah, Mr. Layton’s daughter, remembered her father whistling as he walked and playing the saxophone (badly) when the Blue Jays won the World Series. She mocked his fashion sense.

Upon Rev. Hawkes it fell for a summation. “Life is an amazing gift,” he said. “Be grateful for the gift of life in every single moment you have.”

The reverend spoke of death and of his conversations with Mr. Layton as the end approached. He talked of Mr. Layton’s joy and wishes. Of his lessons and example. “Well done,” Hawkes said. “Good and faithful servant.” And then to everyone out there. “And may we… and may we rise to the occasion. The torch is now passed.”

Above all this, on two video screens, in both official languages, was a single sentence. “Let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.”

To love, to hope, to be optimistic. This is life. This is what it is to truly live.