Behind the scenes: Céline Dion says goodbye to Réne Angélil

Pop Goes The News — The funeral of Réne Angélil, longtime manager and husband of superstar Céline Dion, attracted media outlets from around the world last week to a Montréal church.

Angélil died on Jan. 14, two days before his 74th birthday, following a battle with cancer.

Dozens of accredited reporters, photographers and camera crews — from Canada, the U.S. and several countries in Europe — breathlessly covered the public spectacle.

Many got the details wrong. It wasn’t a state funeral (it was a “national” funeral); all of Canada’s major networks didn’t broadcast the funeral live (though they streamed it online); and flags across the country were not flown at half-mast (only at government buildings in Québec).

Speculation that the funeral would be a star-studded affair also turned out to be wrong. The names of Dion’s famous friends and collaborators had been thrown around for days but Dianne Warren, David Foster, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban and Michael Bublé were no-shows. (Bublé was busy welcoming his second son.)

Dion had said publicly last September that her husband had only months to live. He used this time to plan his own funeral and, like everything else he planned since meeting the 12-year-old singer, it was unabashedly Dion.

The venue was the Notre-Dame Basilica, where Angélil and Dion tied the knot in December 1994. It’s a Catholic church evidently willing to overlook that Angélil was married three times and had three children born via in-vitro fertilization.

But, Notre-Dame Basilica isn’t a typical Catholic church in many ways.

Located steps from the myriad souvenir shops of Old Montréal, it collects a $5 admission fee from more than 2,500 visitors a day and has its own gift shop. (A $10-per-ticket sound-and-light show was discontinued last year.)

MORE: Artist posts ‘dick’ cartoon ahead of Réne Angélil funeral

Pop Goes The News was on site for three days to get a first-hand look at the Angélil funeral.

Preparations began outside the massive Gothic Revival edifice on the morning of Jan. 20. A broadcast truck, portable washroom and generator lined tiny Brésoles Street just east of the church and crews erected scaffolding to run cables across Saint Sulpice Street and into the church.


Above: Crews get ready for the funeral.

Out front, a pair of trucks unloaded accordion lifts that were set up in Place d’Armes to hold lights.

Crews worked overnight to erect four tents atop a platform across the street from the church — one each for CTV, Global, Radio-Canada and TVA — and to install barricades. Lighting was installed on the steps of the basilica.

The casket arrived at the basilica in the early morning hours of Jan. 21. Dion, who flew in from Las Vegas on a private jet only hours earlier, stayed at its side.

All morning, caterers delivered food and beverages that were to be served by hospitality staff from the Bell Centre.

Six chartered buses brought family members to a side door of the church to join the singer for a private visitation.


Above: Céline Dion’s mother Thérèse arrives for the visitation.

Dion’s 88-year-old mother Thérèse arrived in a black sedan. Several close friends of the family also attended, including Québec TV personalities Sonia Benezra and Julie Snyder.

Standing just inside the door was a six-foot Oscar statue made of gold flowers with “Réne Angélil” inscribed on the base. Other floral tributes included one featuring the Montréal Canadiens logo.

Mourners left with a photo of Angélil inscribed with a personal message from Dion. “I understood that my career was in a way his masterpiece, his song, his symphony,” it read. “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.”

Out front, the line-up of people waiting for the public visitation swelled under a large screen displaying an image of Angélil.


Above: People line-up for the visitation.

Inside, in front of the altar, Dion stood only a few feet from the open casket and greeted well-wishers —only occasionally taking a break by sitting on a stool behind the velvet rope.

Guests were told that photos and video were not permitted and the gifts many presented to Dion were handed off to a helper. (A source said only cards and messages would be given to Dion.)

The public visitation, scheduled to run from 2pm to 9pm, went longer. Dion, looking emotionally and physically exhausted, left through a side door with her eldest son at her side — witnessed by only a handful of the dozens of photographers who had waited outside all day.

On the morning of Jan. 22, Place d’Armes — the square in front of Notre-Dame Basilica — was on lockdown, completely surrounded by barricades and dozens of police officers and vehicles. Traffic and bus routes were diverted.

People gathered at the barricades early to take in the spectacle, even if they weren’t sure what was going on. One man who asked a police officer for details admitted he had never heard of Angélil. A woman expressed disappointment that the basilica she planned to visit during her trip to Montréal was inaccessible.

Hundreds of members of the public, who were invited to fill the church balconies, were wanded and had their bags and purses searched.


Above: Funeral guests are screened by security guards.

By 2pm, as nearly 100 accredited reporters, photographers and camera operators took their places along the red carpet leading into the church, invited guests began arriving.

Many were left standing in the cold for close to 20 minutes before the doors were opened.

Dion’s sisters Claudette and Liette — who lost their brother Daniel to cancer in the same week as Angélil’s death — wiped away tears as they entered the church.


Above: Céline Dion’s sister Liette.

Among those in attendance were singer Gregory Charles, songwriter Luc Plamondon, and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, who attended with Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly on behalf of prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Quebec premier Philippe Couillard and Parti Québécois leader Pierre-Karl Péladeau arrived in matching minivans. Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume were also there.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney attended with his wife Mila Mulroney. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who seemed miffed that he and wife Catherine Pinhas were stuck in a large group of mourners, cut a path through the crowd.


Above: NDP leader Thomas Mulcair makes his way through a crowd of mourners waiting to enter the church.

The funeral procession was led by Dion’s niece Audrey (daughter of her sister Ghislaine) and nephew Jimmy (son of her brother Jacques). Now both 29, Audrey had been the flower girl at the wedding of Angélil and Dion — and Jimmy had been the ring bearer.

Just before 3:20 p.m. — as Dion’s 1984 song “Trois Heures Vingt” played — Dion arrived outside the basilica in a black SUV bookended by two Montréal police cars with sons Réne-Charles, Nelson and Eddy as well as her mother and a sister.


Above: Céline Dion arrives at the funeral.

Dion held the hands of the twin boys as she made her way into the church, followed by Réne-Charles and her mother. She placed black lilies on the casket before taking her seat.

The bilingual service, which lasted nearly two hours, was conducted by Montréal Archbishop Christian Lépine with Ibrahim M. Ibrahim of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church (Angélil was raised in a Melkite Catholic family).

Traditional hymns sung by a choir and soloist were performed during the service and several Dion recordings were played, including her1991 song “L’amour existe encore” and her duet with Frank Sinatra, “All The Way.”

Eulogies were given by Angélil’s sons Réne-Charles and Patrick (from a previous marriage).

“You’ve left me with enough good memories to share with my younger brothers,” said Réne-Charles, who turned 15 on Jan. 25. “You are a tough act to follow, but with your help… I promise you we are all going to live up to your standards.”


Above: Réne-Charles Angélil arrives at the funeral.

Patrick recalled: “He never missed a chance to tell us he loved us. Now, more than ever, we realize how exceptional it was to have a father who never hesitated to say those so precious words.”

The 90-minute service ended with the playing of an extended version of Dion’s 1995 song “Pour que tu m’aimes encore.”

With the tower bells ringing, Dion and her sons followed the casket to the steps of the basilica. Looking upwards several times, Dion exhaled deeply.


She placed her hands and head on the casket before it was loaded into the hearse.


Before stepping into her SUV, Dion turned around and took a moment to look up at the basilica. She waved a hand towards the sky. Then she bowed her head.


It was a final farewell to the church where she both married and mourned her beloved husband.

A funeral services for Dion’s older brother Daniel takes place Monday at St-Simon-et-Jude in Charlemagne.

Dion is scheduled to return to the Las Vegas stage on Feb. 23 for 23 shows through early June. She performs 10 concerts at Montréal’s Bell Centre from July 31 to Aug. 17 followed by four concerts in Quebec City.

Meanwhile, it was business as usual at Notre-Dame Basilica by early Saturday morning. Crews worked overnight to remove all traces of the funeral from the church property, adjacent streets and Place d’Armes square.

The tourists are back, paying $5 each to walk around the magnificent building.

On Sunday, a teenager outside the church was overhead telling her friend: “This is where the Céline Dion funeral was on Friday.”

Well, not exactly. Céline’s heart goes on.

All photos by John R. Kennedy