08/26/2011 06:16 EDT | Updated 10/26/2011 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton State Funeral: Messages Of Hope, Optimism And Politicization Of Funeral What Layton Wanted


OTTAWA - Jack Layton's state funeral will be as much a political event as a religious ceremony.

But while the overt politicization of the NDP leader's death has raised eyebrows in some quarters, his former top aide makes no apologies.

Anne McGrath says that's exactly what Layton wanted as he struggled during his final days to ensure something positive would come of his untimely death.

From the moment he received the bad news from cancer tests in mid-July, McGrath says, Layton began scripting in intricate detail how his death and funeral should play out, planning how he could cushion the blow to his beloved party and motivate New Democrats to carry on his work.

"I think he was continuing to hope that this would not be the case, obviously," McGrath says.

"But he was very clear that if this was going to happen that there had to be something good out of it. I think a lot of people, when you're facing moments like this with death, people look for meaning and he knew that."

Layton himself needed to find some meaning in the cruel twist of fate that robbed him of his health just three months after leading the NDP out of the political wilderness and within sight of the promised land. He recognized his death would provide a unique, albeit unwelcome, megaphone for his views and set about to make the most of it.

"He wouldn't have wanted to go out kind of railing against the injustice of it or anything like that," says McGrath.

"What he wanted was those messages that he gave at that news conference (in July) when he decided to take the leave (of absence): hope, optimism, a different way of looking at politics, at life, the world."

Not surprisingly, Layton was preoccupied with how his death would impact the New Democratic Party. He had been the glue holding disparate elements of the party together, the popular face of the party whose just-folks appeal was largely responsible for the NDP's breakthrough in the May 2 election. He knew his death would be "a huge blow" to the party.

In a phone call with Layton the day he received the "pretty dire" test results, McGrath says, "he really was talking to me on that call about fundraising, about membership, about making plans, about continuing the work."

Less than 48 hours before his death Monday, Layton penned an extraordinary open letter to Canadians, reiterating his hopes and dreams for the country and exhorting fellow New Democrats to continue his work. He even outlined the schedule the party should follow to choose his successor as quickly as possible.

"Certainly, he wanted to make sure that he left something that we could use to continue to build," says McGrath.

"He knew that this was going to be a horrible situation, not just for him but for us as well. ... He was thinking about how we continue on without him."

In the same vein, Saturday's state funeral will involve both political and spiritual messages. Rev. Brent Hawkes, a longtime friend and gay-rights advocate, will officiate and he's said he'll deliver a couple of specific messages at Layton's request.

"If you look at everything in Jack's life, if you look at his wedding, if you look at his family, for him, being political was who he was. It's how he lived his life every day," observes McGrath.

"If a funeral is supposed to reflect the life of the person then how can it not have some political elements to it?"

The ceremony will include a seven-minute video covering the highlights of Layton's life, including some recollections from his widow, MP Olivia Chow — his longtime partner in municipal and federal politics.

Befitting a political event, the service will be as inclusive as possible. Chow has asked that as many members of the public as possible be allowed to attend the service at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. And it will feature an aboriginal blessing as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious readings.

McGrath says it's to Layton's credit that "he was thinking about how this terrible event could be something that would help to motivate people, to inspire people, to bring more people together, to continue on the work."

"If you felt that you were facing death, wouldn't you want to be able to leave a message to people? Wouldn't you want people to carry on working on the things that you felt were important?"

"That's who he was."