Simple send-off for Harper Lee

Pallbearers carry Harper Lee’s coffin out of the First United Methodist Church during her funeral service in Monroeville last Saturday
Pallbearers carry Harper Lee’s coffin out of the First United Methodist Church during her funeral service in Monroeville last SaturdayPHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Flowers left on a statue in Monroeville.
Flowers left on a statue in Monroeville.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The private memorial service for To Kill A Mockingbird author had a guest list of 40 people

MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA• Friends and family from around the corner and across the country gathered here last Saturday to pay final respects to Harper Lee, the author whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial inequality in the South during the Jim Crow-era inspired generations of readers.

A dense fog that had shrouded this small town lifted as mourners filed into the First United Methodist Church, which she had attended for many years, for a simple, private service that lasted about an hour.

The relatively small guest list of perhaps 40 people at the private memorial service included relatives of the publicity-shy author and friends from her hometown and places such as New York City, where she had once lived and had written her celebrated book, To Kill A Mockingbird.

"She controlled what world she wanted to live in," said Ms Joy Brown, a close friend from New York who, with her husband, financed Lee's writing pursuits during the period when she wrote Mockingbird. The mood in this town of about 6,300 was muted, like the writer's approach to celebrity, which she eschewed.

She may have written a book that has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1960, but there were no news trucks and no police officers outside the church as her coffin, adorned with a spray of red and white roses, was wheeled into the church.

"She wanted to be buried before anyone knew she was dead and we're getting as close to it as possible," said Mr George Landegger, an industrialist and philanthropist, who attended the service.

The church also opened in the afternoon to let people offer their sympathies to Lee's extended family and her lawyer, Tonja B. Carter.

Until she died in her sleep early last Friday, at age 89, Lee had lived at the Meadows, an assisted living facility here. She was buried at Pineville Cemetery near the church, next to her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was the role model for her fictional character Atticus Finch, and near the graves of her mother, Frances, and her sister Alice, who died in 2014.

Lee, known here as Nelle, was a Methodist, and Alice Lee held a number of prominent positions with the church and was also its lawyer.

Harper Lee was a different story, recalled the Reverend Thomas Butts, who was pastor from 1993 to 1998.

"She did not want to do anything that put her in the public eye," he said, although she attended church regularly, typically sitting in the fourth or fifth pew with her sister.

Lee was private but not a recluse and was often seen out at the restaurants with her sister. But she kept an apartment in New York, even after she moved back to the town where she had grown up.

"Nelle loved New York," the pastor said. "She could keep her privacy intact in New York; she could hide in the open. You see, living in Monroeville is like living in a fishbowl."

Her impact on Monroeville was evident everywhere, from the mockingbirds that adorn some buildings in the town square to the black funereal bows placed on the doors of the old courthouse, now a museum, where Lee set the scenes for her novel about a lawyer's fight for justice and tolerance.

In the eulogy, Mr Wayne Flynt, a friend of Lee's and professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, said she had asked him to speak only about her art. "We gather today to honour a person, a writer, her father, her mother, her siblings and her novel," he told the church. "That is a bit more than I can manage in 15 minutes so I will stick with the novel."

Afterwards, Mr Hank Conner, Lee's eldest nephew, said of Mr Flynt: "He delivered the most concise, accurate and fair assessment of To Kill A Mockingbird I've ever heard."

Much curiosity will now be focused on Lee's estate, projected to be worth tens of millions of dollars. Added to the royalties earned by Mockingbird, thought to top US$3 million (S$4.2 million) a year, a second book Lee published last year, Go Set A Watchman, was the best-selling book of 2015 in the United States.

Her will is to be probated in Monroeville within the next few weeks. She never married and had no children.

Even in death, she seemed capable of remaining understated, as her own funeral was overshadowed by that of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court, whose funeral Mass was celebrated last Saturday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Simple send-off for Harper Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe