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An intimate funeral for a great man

Many gather during the funeral of Governor Mario

Many gather during the funeral of Governor Mario M. Cuomo Funeral at St. Ignatius Church in Manhattan on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

Mario Cuomo requested a simple funeral.

Despite the soaring and elaborate vaulted ceilings of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola; the wall-to-wall TV satellite trucks on Park Avenue; hundreds of mourners, including Tony Bennett and Billy Joel, and a former president and perhaps a future one; and every politician, ever, from Queens filling the pews, the former governor was sent off with the intimate service he wanted.

It was very much the familiar Catholic ritual that takes place almost every weekday morning in a parish church. The priest and altar servers led the coffin, covered with a pall, down the center aisle. Following them was the son in a close embrace of the grieving widow. The choir led the hymn "Be Not Afraid." The children stepped up to the lectern to read from the Old and New Testaments, and the teenage granddaughters, somber in their black dresses, softly led the congregation in the Prayer of the Faithful. The younger grandchildren were coaxed up the aisle to deliver the offertory gifts. A soloist sang "Ave Maria" as the communion began.

As he did in life, in death he wanted his audience to understand how his faith inspired a life of public service, which in turn infused meaning into his life: Jesus was about love and love was about doing good things, and government should be a source of good things.

The requiem Mass, or Mass for the dead, celebrates the entrance into a new light from the dark of dust. Reminding everyone of that message of love and hope, after all, is how Cuomo lived his life. And infusing those words into riveting political oratory is what he will be most remembered for.

"Mario Cuomo's politics were more a personal belief system than a traditional theory," said his son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "It was who he was. Not what he did."

Mario's son delivered the eulogy at the end of the service, one he stayed up late writing the night before to capture the simplicity and essence of his father's message. He told funny stories of warming up mother Matilda's casseroles for dinner in an Albany apartment he once shared with his father. And how his father was fiercely competitive at basketball and proud that he was from Queens. And his father's excitement about the bold Jesuit who now leads the Catholic Church.

"My father thought that Pope Francis would agree that Jesus himself was from an outer borough," Andrew said to laughs.

The son just elected to his second term remained determined not to cry, but the fluctuations in his voice laid bare that struggle.

He wanted to get some things clear, particularly that his father didn't run for president "because he didn't want to." And he recalled how his father railed against "reporters with an agenda."

Cuomo described how his father was determined to stay alive until the younger Cuomo delivered his second inaugural speech on New Year's Day. The sitting governor then used the eulogy to address current tensions over policing in New York City. His father, who was in the Statehouse during ugly incidents in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst in the 1980s, knew that "racial and class divisions are the New York City fault lines." Mario told his son it was time to stop the negative energy and to move the city forward. And the son promised to do that Tuesday.

Andrew said Mario never cared about an audience's expectations. The message was always more important. "It's not about what they want to hear, it's about what you need to say," the father told him.

Tuesday, Mario Cuomo said what he had to say one final time.

Rita Ciolli is Newsday's editorial page editor.


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