Rita MacNeil's funeral packs Big Pond church

A funeral service was held Monday afternoon for acclaimed Cape Breton singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil at a church in her Nova Scotia hometown of Big Pond.

MacNeil's daughter says family 'overwhelmed' by public support

Funeral service for acclaimed Cape Breton singer-songwriter in her N.S. hometown of Big Pond. 37:03

A funeral service was held Monday afternoon for acclaimed Cape Breton singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil at a church in her Nova Scotia hometown of Big Pond.

The service Monday afternoon at St. Mary's Parish was at capacity.  About 200 people packed into the small church in Big Pond — just up the road from MacNeil's home.

The 68-year-old singer died last week following complications from surgery after a recurring infection.

Laura Lewis, MacNeil's daughter, was the first to speak at her mother's funeral. She expressed thanks for the support her family has received.

"We are overwhelmed with the kind words, we are overwhelmed with the stories and the tributes, and we're overwhelmed with your sympathies and condolences," she said.

"She was a very special mum, we loved her deeply and we will miss her deeply ... She showed us that humour and laughter is a wonderful coping mechanism in hard times."

Lewis then went on to describe her mother's wishes in the event of her death.

The instructions included her wish to be cremated, and her ashes placed inside of a tea pot — or two, should another be required. MacNeil also wished,that following the service, her family and friends proceed to the fire hall next door to have a party with a "cash bar" to celebrate her life. She also requested that her ashes be scattered around the Big Pond property where her tea room sits.

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The service lasted about 40 minutes and included readings by members of MacNeil's family, such as her niece and first cousin.

MacNeil's remains, which were cremated and placed in a white teapot with her name written on the side, were placed at the front of the church. It's a nod to Rita's Tea Room, which she opened in her hometown of Big Pond in 1986. MacNeil gave regular performances at the former one-room schoolhouse, which she bought in 1982 and renovated.

Hundreds of people were expected to attend the service at St. Mary's Parish, which overlooks the Bras d’Or Lake. Another 450 people were expected at the Big Pond Community Fire Hall nearby, where they were able to watch the funeral through a live video feed.

A reception took place at the fire hall after the funeral.  

Mike Knickle, who counts himself among MacNeil's biggest fans, travelled from Shelburne to attend her funeral.

Knickle said he has seen her perform on at least 50 occasions — after every performance he would present MacNeil with a rose.

"When she came out with her first song, I got interested in her with Fast Train to Tokyo. I just fell in love with her from then on. It was just onward and upward from there. She’s so special, she’s so down to earth, she’s so precious."

On Monday, Knickle laid one last rose for MacNeil beside the teapot containing her ashes.

MacNeil, who was one of eight children, moved to Toronto at age 17, wrote her first song there and began singing in folk clubs. She later moved to Ottawa, where she recorded three albums, but eventually returned to Big Pond, where she formed a trio.

Her powerful voice explored genres from country to folk to gospel.

MacNeil worked tirelessly over decades to gradually become a beloved fixture in Canadian culture, with her greatest success coming after she was in her 40s. She recorded 24 albums and sold millions of records over the course of her career.

A recording of Weary Travelers, a song from her last album, was played at the funeral.

MacNeil, who was also a member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of five honorary doctorates, has been praised by many for her wisdom and humility.