Bob Hawke, John Howard and Malcolm Fraser at the service for Sir Zelman Cowen.Former Australian Prime Ministers: Bob Hawke, John Howard and Malcolm Fraser at the service for Sir Zelman Cowen. Photo: Pat Scala
STATE funerals can often compress great achievements and personal qualities into too small an emotional space to do them justice. Not so yesterday's grand occasion at the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in St Kilda for former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen, who died last week at 92.
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''.
Lady Anna Cowen and Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen leave the service. Photo: Peter Haskin
What was possibly beyond Sir Zelman's control was what people chose to say about him or who would turn up on the day. As it happened, this funeral burst the bounds of statehood. How could it have been otherwise? There were the nation's highest officials, from Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, to a litany of former GGs, former PMs (Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard, sitting together, three old men in their yarmulkes). Also there were Premier Ted Baillieu and his predecessors John Brumby and Steve Bracks; and a generous sprinkling of politics past and present - the rich, the cultured, the judicial and the academic.

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.''
Prime Minister Julia Gillard.Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Pat Scala
Steven Skala, one of Sir Zelman's former students and long-time friend, recalled with affection how, almost by osmosis and ''simply by being in his presence'', Sir Zelman transferred his own knowledge and wisdom to younger minds and, in the process, ''helped us to shape ourselves''. A distinctive method, Mr Skala said, and once the matter was sufficiently explained, Sir Zelman would smile, and say: ''So there. You have it.''

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:
Sir Zelman Cowen.
Sir Zelman Cowen.
Bob Hawke: ''When you think of the history, of the three great Jewish figures: Isaac Isaacs, General Monash and Zelman Cowen. All fantastic.''

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.''