They came in suits and shorts, heels and flip-flops, somber dresses, casual T-shirts – and at least one black tank top embellished with a message hand-written in alternating red, white, and green paint: “Riposa in Pace, Capo.”
“I have to show my respect,” the tank top’s designer – Assunta, a silver-haired woman from Yonkers – said, gesturing to her handiwork. “You can read it, if you like: ‘Rest in peace, Boss.’ That’s what he is. He was the boss.”
Assunta had gathered with what seemed like all of New York City’s Italian-American community – not to mention Mario Batali, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Chris Christie, a gaggle of Sopranos cast members, and fans of countless other ethnic backgrounds – to say goodbye to James Gandolfini, who died suddenly of a heart attack June 19.
The funeral was held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, which stands just south of Columbia University. (“It’s by Meadow [Soprano]!” Assunta explained.) Saint John also happens to be the fourth-largest church in the world, making it one of the only sites in New York capable of holding hordes of Gandolfini’s mourners.
In some ways, though, there still wasn’t quite enough room inside. “James’s dear friend Trixie commented the other day how fitting it was that his service would be in Saint John the Divine, a space that is big enough to hold his huge heart and spirit,” Gandolfini’s acting coach Susan Aston would note in her eulogy. As she spoke, the church’s bells began to ring. “I agreed with her then. But now I think we should be on a mountaintop, under the expanse of the sky and the heavens, with nothing surrounding us save our creator.”
Though they didn’t know him personally, Gandolfini’s fans were nearly as effusive as Aston in their praise. Not just any actor could persuade a crowd of hundreds to wake up early and stand patiently in a two-block-long queue, despite scorching temperatures and suffocating humidity – but Gandolfini could. “I appreciate him as a citizen, a father, and an actor, and a man,” explained native Sicilian Nat Di-Leonardo in a softly accented voice. “He’s the type of human being that related to the common person. That’s why the common person responds to him… He became a big personality after the series because of his humanity.”
“He just seemed like a real person, you know?” added New Yorker Diane Alessei, fanning herself with her hand.
As the funeral’s start time of 10 a.m. crept closer, the crowd moved slowly toward one of the cathedral’s towering doors. “I’m glad it’s open to the public,” someone muttered. “Well, he’s that kind of guy,” answered a woman wearing gold earrings shaped like comedy and tragedy masks. One attendee compared the scene to former mayor Ed Koch’s funeral in February; Di-Leonardo said it reminded him of Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral at the cathedral of Modena.
Eventually, they made it past the security guards checking purses and waving metal detector wands – “It is a mob funeral,” whispered Assunta – and grabbed seats in folding chairs, where they listened as Reverend Dr. James Kowalski led the group in prayer.
Gandolfini’s wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, gave a short, emotional speech that highlighted her husband’s honesty, kindness, and loving nature. His assistant, Thomas Richardson, said that Gandolfini had been “everything” to him – “more than a friend, more than a brother.” Aston warmly recalled Gandolfini’s early days in the theater, then suggested that his loved ones do as the actor did in his work: “We will struggle, we will trust, we will let go, we will fall into the unknown, trusting again that we will be delivered to a new understanding.”
And finally came Sopranos creator David Chase, who delivered his eulogy in the form of a letter to his fallen friend. Though the full speech – which you can read in its entirety here – was poignant, this passage especially stuck out:
The paradox about you as a man is that I always felt personally that with you, I was seeing a young boy. A boy about Michael [Gandolfini]’s age right now. Because you were very boyish. And about that age when humankind and life on the planet are opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their beautiful and horrible glory. And I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy, amazed and confused and loving and amazed by all that.
And that was all in your eyes. And that was why, I think, you were a great actor – is because of that boy that was inside. It was a child reacting. Of course you were intelligent, but it was a child reaction, and your reactions were often childish. And by that I mean they were pre-school, they were pre-manners, they were pre-intellect. They were just simple emotions, straight and pure. And I think your talent is that you can take in the immensity of humankind and the universe and shine it back out to the rest of us like a huge, bright light. And I believe that only a pure soul, like a child, could do that really well. And that was you.
A homily from Reverend Kowalski, a stirring rendition of “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables (sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg), and several more prayers followed – but in those few sentences, Chase had already said it all.
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