Goodbye to a good man: nation's big names gather to honour former governor-general
THE AGE Michael Shmith December 14, 2011
Jewish funerals are, by tradition, as simple and unadorned as the coffin itself - this one being draped with an Australian flag. This did not preclude an opulence of affection and recollection bestowed on Sir Zelman in a service that, while talking of 92 years, stretched back thousands of years in its liturgy and Hebraic harmonies.
All this was exactly what Sir Zelman would have wanted: in fact, as we were told, it was exactly what he had ordered. Everything from the choice of speakers to what music should be played was, as it were, pre-ordained. Thus his beloved Mozart and J.S. Bach and, to see us out, Widor's thunderously pealing Grand Toccata to make sure, as Rabbi Dr John Levi said in his eulogy, ''the job is done''.
There were many from abroad. As one speaker remarked, ''The old man has gone, and they had to be here to say goodbye''.
One of Sir Zelman's qualities, said Dr Levi, was ''there was no frontier between the public and the private man''. He drew on another ancient analogy - of the three crowns: of learning, of priesthood, and of royalty. ''But there is also a fourth crown that exceeds them all: the crown of a good man.''
Another extraordinary gift, he said, was the ''sudden and imperceptible transition from teacher to friend''. Friendship was very important to Sir Zelman, ''who had an extraordinary range of friends from all walks of life in all parts of the world''.
Federal MP Josh Frydenberg, a protege of Sir Zelman's, spoke warmly of what he called his regular Sundays with Zelman, and the ensuing lengthy discussions on law, music, philosophy or war. ''It was as if a back window was open, and all the great stories of the 20th century came flowing in,'' Mr Frydenberg said.
The two-hour service, as much celebration as commemoration and not without moments of pure Cowenesque comedy, expertly and excellently encapsulated a long and fortunate life that embraced the law and great offices of academia and state, but also an unfailing sense of religion and family - especially, as many of the speakers recalled, Sir Zelman's 66-year marriage to a woman who, as we were reminded, but for her religion would be called Saint Anna.
The Zelman Cowen approach to life was certainly direct and uncomplicated. As his son, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, told the capacity congregation, ''Dad was a doer. I once asked him what was his philosophy of life. He said, 'The next thing, and then the next thing'.'' Dr Cowen, again reaching back through biblical history, compared his father to Abraham: how Sir Zelman also unified human beings by rebuilding and healing, particularly as governor-general. ''He had an immensely confident, exercised mind,'' he said.
On the way out, The Age encountered in quick succession three former PMs. This is what they said of Sir Zelman:
John Howard: ''I saw a lot of him when I was treasurer and he was governor-general. I tell you what, if a poor innocent junior minister or parliamentarian hadn't done their homework, he'd give them a bit of a flick.'' The Age: ''But not you, Mr Howard?'' JH: ''No, no.''
Malcolm Fraser: ''When I asked him [to be governor-general], he kept saying 'why me?'. I said he was better than anyone else I could think of. It had to be someone who was not a personal friend, who was not involved in politics … who was distinguished, whose name was known and recognised.''