Celine Says Goodbye to Rene in a Magnificent Funeral In the Church Where They were Married

Image courtesy of CBC

Crowds gathered outside the grand basilica while millions more watched on television – first the “I do’s” followed by the kiss, then the walk down the aisle and celebratory cheers as they emerged in the street. The bride’s crystal tiara and white silk dress glistened in the spotlight and, for that one day, Canada basked in the glow of the closest the nation has ever come to a royal wedding to call its own since Wayne married Janet. The U.K. had Charles and Diana and, later, Will and Kate. The U.S. had the Kennedys. In Canada, it was Celine Dion and Réne Angélil.

Today Angélil is laid to rest with a funeral service broadcast live on three television stations, a day after laying in state at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica and a week after Quebec’s flags fell to half-mast upon news of his passing – receiving a “national funeral one rung down from state, far more pomp and circumstance than the average entertainment manager receives upon their passing.

But in Canada, however, where our monarch sits on a throne an ocean away, a couple as glamorous and successful and celebrated as Dion and Angélil is essentially royalty.

One of Dion’s first hits was the song “Beauty and the Beast” from the Disney film of the same name and with a central storyline that befits the couple. On one hand you have the young francophone belle – in this case from Charlemagne, Que. – who encounters not a beast but a powerful man 26 years her senior who plucks her from her provincial life and offers her the spoils of the kingdom. The romance flourished despite initial public opposition and, as in any fairy tale worth its Disney pixie dust, the pitchforks turned to applause and the pair married.

But the marriage wasn’t your typical show business affair. It was born of the type of love Dion would belt out a ballad about – the powerful type, the kind that could move mountains. The adoration of Dion by Angélil, and vice versa, was clear and it served to melt even the coldest of the cynics looking on.

Dion’s popularity was never in question in her native Quebec, where she and Angélil were already beloved, but in time the singer became the small-town Canadian girl who made more than good on the world stage.

Her songs shot to the top of the charts while album sales records shattered. When fellow Canuck James Cameron broke box office records by sinking the Titanic, he enlisted Dion to serenade the ship on the way to the ocean floor with her iconic “My Heart Will Go On.” But beyond her hits, Dion became something of a national figurehead, in time becoming synonymous with Canada itself.

In 1996 she sang at the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Summer Games; in 2001 she performed “God Bless America” at a 9/11 tribute concert; at the 2015 American Music Awards, she performed Edith Piaf’s “Hymne A L’amour” as a tribute to the victims of the Paris terror attacks. With every one of these appearances she represented our nation in a call to arms that far exceeded the duties of a conventional pop star. In a nation as modest as Canada, which blushes at the first utterance of adulation, Dion and Angélil became our unofficial ambassadors.

Like a monarch, for better or worse, wherever she travelled and performed Dion represented us, waving at onlookers with a side hand reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth, while her own doting Prince Philip – Angélil – stood faithfully by her side.

When the couple renewed their wedding vows, decked out in lavish gold clothing reminiscent of another famous royal – Cleopatra – some scoffed. It seemed over-indulgent, even tacky, as royalty often is. But, in a way, anything less extravagant would have proven a letdown. The birth of their children, meanwhile, attracted endless media attention – especially their twin boys, conceived through in vitro treatments – which seemed to humanize and endear the couple to the public even more.

Even in hard times, as Angélil grew sicker and Dion went back to work at her residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – where her box office success is rivalled by only one other member of music royalty, the King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley – the couple carried themselves through the ordeal with dignity that drew the respect and awe of the nation. And just as the nation cheered alongside the couple as theu married, it now mourns with Dion upon Angélil’s passing.

And yet, as flags waved at half-mast and fans literally gathered from around the world to pay their final respects, Dion herself stood in the centre of Notre-Dame Basilica for seven hours, tears glistening in her eyes behind her black veil, next to Angélil’s casket, personally greeting every loyal fan and perfect stranger with a measure of grace and strength that warmed everyone in attendance.

Dion with her eldest son Rene-Charles, who spoke during the service
Dion with her eldest son, Rene-Charles, who spoke during the service

The funeral at Notre-Dame Basilica, where Dion and Angélil were married, was attended by luminaries including Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Brian Mulroney and wife Mila Mulroney, legendary music producer David Foster, and Julie Snyder, wife of leader Quebec’s official provincial opposition leader Pierre Karl Péladeau. Dion and Angelil’s oldest son, Réne-Charles, spoke at the service – a moment reminiscent of a young Justin Trudeau who, like Réne-Charles, was famous from birth and spoke at the funeral of his father, Pierre Trudeau, in the same Basilica. Dion’s appearance, wearing a widow’s ensemble reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy at President Kennedy’s funeral, which mirrored her veiled appearance at yesterday’s visitation, only added to the momentous feel of the farewell.

In memory of Angélil, Dion wrote, “I understood that my career was in a way his masterpiece, his song, his symphony. The idea of leaving it unfinished would have hurt him terribly. I realized that if he ever left us, I would have to continue without him, for him.”

And continue she will. Like any great fairy tale romance, Angélil’s symphony will live on.