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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

A big state ceremony with an unpretentious feel

Gov. Andrew Cuomo embraces former President Bill Clinton

Gov. Andrew Cuomo embraces former President Bill Clinton during the funeral of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo at St. Ignatius Church in Manhattan on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

The Rev. George M. Witt said Mario Cuomo "made it quite clear" before he died "that as much as possible he wanted a simple local funeral with minimal fanfare."

"This has been hard to pull off."

Witt is pastor of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, which became the home parish of the former governor and family members when he moved to Sutton Place following his third term in Albany at the end of 1994.

The Upper East Side today may be a long way from 20th century Queens. On this occasion, it seemed less so. With Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaking, and a phalanx of state troopers taking part, and political VIPs packing the pews, it was a big state ceremony for sure. But mention of his father's early work for Corona homeowners and the life his family built in South Jamaica rekindled the Queens hearth.

Andrew Cuomo even quipped during his eulogy that his father was confident Pope Francis I would agree that "Jesus was from an outer borough."

The ground floor of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, where his wake was held Monday, had an especially unpretentious feel.

Photos placed at the entrance included a black-and-white rendition of the late governor with his back to a brick wall, in dress shirt and dark slacks, pulling back a stickball bat. On his face you could see a rare look of unrestrained glee.

Others were a formal Mario-and-Matilda wedding photo from 60 years ago; a posed photo in his minor-league baseball uniform; another of Andrew and Mario Cuomo hailing an election victory, one of Mario sharing a laugh with his one-time aide, the late Tim Russert, and another from his appearance in baseball cap on a Wheaties box.

Outdoors, despite subfreezing temperatures, mourners stood, some for hours, in a line stretching around the block. After other exhausted-looking family members departed, younger son Chris Cuomo, the television journalist, slowly walked along the line of well-wishers, exchanging hugs and gentle words with those still waiting.

Thirteen hours later, as the coffin arrived and the funeral commenced, snow fell steadily from a gunmetal sky that seemed conducive to grieving.

"For those who knew him well," Witt said from the pulpit, Mario Cuomo's stated desire for a simple funeral "comes as no surprise. For despite the great successes of his career, Mario Cuomo was fundamentally a humble man -- and a man of great faith in God."

Sounds like something the deceased might have been humbled to hear.

Once his turn came, the current Governor Cuomo said: "My father was a humanist. He had strong feelings of right and wrong based on his religion, philosophy and life experiences."

"Mario Cuomo was the keynote speaker for our better angels."

That's a good line -- and a tough act for any governor to follow.

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