Jack Layton's family, friends and politicians from all parties joined thousands of members of the public to celebrate the life of the NDP leader at a state funeral Saturday in Toronto, where he was hailed as a caring, passionate voice in Canadian politics who died "at the pinnacle of his career."

The funeral began after an emotional procession through downtown Toronto. Thousands of well-wishers — some wearing NDP orange — cheered and clapped alongside the procession route while bagpipes played and Layton's flag-draped coffin passed by on its way from City Hall to Roy Thomson Hall.

Layton's widow, NDP MP Olivia Chow and his children Sarah and Mike, a Toronto city councillor, followed the hearse on foot.

While the family entered and took their seats in the concert hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" as people in the packed hall stood.

"I'm sad, we're sad. But let us not look behind us, let's look forward," Chow said, wiping back tears, as part of a video tribute tracing her husband's path to power.

"We are overwhelmed by the incredible support you have shown us. We are proud to have shared our father with you," Mike Layton said during his eulogy alongside his sister, Sarah Layton.

'Lived life to the fullest'

Mike Layton shared with the crowd memories of his "loving dad" who urged people to "have a dream that is longer than a lifetime."

"My dad lived life to the fullest," Layton's daughter said. While she noted her father's many accomplishments, she said he was particularly proud to become a grandfather. She also praised Chow as her father's "soul mate." 

The service included readings from the Qur'an and the Bible.

In his eulogy, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis mourned the fact that Layton died "at the pinnacle of his career." Lewis said Layton's personal and political style was "so civil, so accessible."

Lewis, whose words were at times highly partisan, sparked a standing ovation when he praised Layton's last letter to Canadians, which he said "was at its heart a manifesto for social democracy."

Singer Lorraine Segato also brought the crowd to their feet with a performance of her group The Parachute Club's 1980's pop anthem, "Rise Up."

Other musical artists included former Barenaked Ladies singer Stephen Page who sang Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" and Quebec's Martin Deschamps, who sang "Croire." 

'Man of the people'

Earlier in the service, Shawn Atleo, National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, offered an aboriginal blessing, calling Layton "a man of the people."

Layton, the leader of the Official Opposition, died of cancer at his Toronto home on Monday at age 61.

The NDP leader's death sparked an "extraordinary and emotional week," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said just before the service began.

"Supporters and opponents alike have had an opportunity to pay honour, to express their gratitude for Jack Layton's contribution to public life," Harper said.

Also speaking beforehand was Gov. Gen. David Johnston who called the service an opportunity to "celebrate a remarkable life of leadership."

"It is so important in our system to have a clear and passionate voice for the ordinary person, and Mr. Layton was that person," Johnston said.

About 1,700 invited guests attended the funeral along with 700 members of the public who lined up for first-come, first-serve seats as early as Friday afternoon.

The dignitaries at the funeral included:

  • The Governor General and his wife, Sharon.
  • The Prime Minister and his wife, Laureen.
  • Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel.
  • Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
  • Interim Bloc Québécois Leader Louis Plamondon.
  • Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
  • Former Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion.
  • Former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe.
  • Former prime minister Paul Martin.
  • Former prime minister Jean Chrétien.
  • Former NDP leaders Alexa McDonough, Audrey McLaughlin and Ed Broadbent.

McDonough, Broadbent and Doer were among the 16 honorary pallbearers.

Rev. Brent Hawkes closed the service by quoting from Layton's final letter: "So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic, and together we'll change the world."

'Tremendously moving'

Chow spoke with Harper and his wife before Layton's coffin was loaded into the hearse. The crowd gathered outside Roy Thomson Hall applauded as the motorcade moved away.

"It was tremendously moving," Paul Martin said after the funeral ended. "It was impossible to be in that room and to watch it on television without being touched."

"I wanted to come and wanted to be there to pay tribute to him — like the rest of Canada wanted to do," Chrétien said afterwards. 

Layton's body will be cremated and his ashes will be spread in three different locations in the coming days:

  • Wyman United Church cemetery in Hudson, Que., where his father and maternal grandparents are buried.
  • Toronto Island, where he and Chow were married.
  • St. James' Cemetery in Toronto.

At the Quebec and Toronto Island locations, his ashes will spread where a memorial tree is planted.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, holds his head as his wife Laureen Harper, left, sheds a tear during the funeral for NDP leader Jack Layton. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Toronto residents' affection for Layton has been clear since his death, with tributes and well-wishers leaving flowers and mementoes at Layton's constituency office, his home, and at city hall — where a single chalk message scrawled on the concrete wall of a raised walkway became a large-scale memorial, with hundreds of messages written in chalk.

The city's CN Tower was to be lit in orange from sundown Saturday until sunrise Sunday in honour of the late NDP leader.

Over 6,000 members of the public filed past Layton's casket on Friday in Toronto, just as they did in Ottawa on Wednesday and Thursday.