Fans of Celine Dion mourn her husband at funeral


Montreal (AFP)

Thousands of people were expected Friday at the funeral of Canadian pop superstar Celine Dion's husband and longtime manager Rene Angelil at Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica.

The funeral mass is to be televised live across Canada and streamed worldwide for the singer's fans around the world.

Dion kept vigil over her husband for seven hours Thursday as fans and well-wishers waited hours in line to view his casket and offer the grieving singer words of sympathy.

Twenty-six years Dion's senior, Angelil died January 14 at the couple's home in Las Vegas after a long struggle with throat cancer. He was 73.

After selling more than 220 million albums worldwide, the couple had settled in Las Vegas where Dion signed a lucrative contract to sing shows at The Colosseum. She is to return to the stage on February 23.

Family, friends, senior politicians and entertainers and Dion's fans were expected to turn out for the funeral at the massive basilica where 21 years earlier the couple had exchanged wedding vows.

The archbishop of Montreal Christian Lepine was to preside over the funeral at the imposing Notre-Dame Basilica in the heart of the city's historic district.

The government of Quebec province offered to hold a "national" funeral -- akin to a state funeral -- for Angelil. Provincial flags across the province were lowered to half mast.

Several singers and composers who had worked with Angelil arrived at the church early in the morning to offer their condolences to Dion, including Luc Plamondon, Garou, Veronique Dicaire, as well as former hockey players and poker stars.

Already, a line had formed outside the basilica the night before, with hundreds coming to pay their respects, and to get a glimpse of their idol, Dion, dressed all in black and often seen wiping away tears.

- 'My career, his masterpiece' -

After waiting up to five hours in the cold to get in, Dion's fans upon exiting the church were rewarded with a memorial card with a black and white photo of Angelil, and a note on the back reassuring them that Dion would eventually return to the stage, after a short pause in her Las Vegas shows to grieve.

"I understood that my career was somehow his masterpiece, his song, his symphony to himself. The idea that it could remain unfinished would have pained terribly. I understood that if he ever left us, I should continue without him, for him," the message said.

Born in Montreal to Lebanese-Syrian immigrant parents, Angelil began his showbiz career as a member of a band playing yeye -- French 60s music -- called the Baronets.

After it broke up, Angelil turned to managing the careers of other entertainers, and signed one of the biggest names in Quebec music, Ginette Reno, but the arrangement ended abruptly in 1981. Reno was expected at the funeral.

Just then, another opportunity arose.

At age 12, Dion had recorded a demo tape with her mother and sent it to Angelil. He was so struck by her voice that he signed her to an exclusive management contract -- mortgaging his house to finance her debut album.

"I'd never heard anything like it. For me, it was the most beautiful voice in the world," he would recall in interviews.

The businessman set out to make Dion the biggest singer in the world.

In 1994, when she was 26 and he was twice her age, the couple married in an extravagant wedding ceremony that was televised live in Canada, and splashed all over glossy magazines.

Rene Angelil leaves behind their three children, Rene-Charles (15 years old), and twins Nelson and Eddy (five), and three other children from two previous marriages.