Special Reports

George Tiller funeral draws protests but ends peacefully

Jeanne Tiller, far left, escorts her late husband's casket from College Hill United Methodist Church after the service for Dr. George Tiller, who was shot last Sunday.
Jeanne Tiller, far left, escorts her late husband's casket from College Hill United Methodist Church after the service for Dr. George Tiller, who was shot last Sunday. The Wichita Eagle

George Tiller's funeral this morning drew large crowds and some protesters but was peaceful, officials said.

Wichita police Capt. Hassan Ramzah said no incidents occurred at the church or during the service for the slain abortion provider at College Hill United Methodist Church, near First Street and Hillside.

Ramzah said he could not reveal how many police officers worked the service.

Tiller was shot and killed Sunday at Reformation Lutheran Church, where he was serving as an usher. Scott Roeder, 51, has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting.

Marilyn Grisham, like many funeralgoers, said she attended the service to show support for Tiller's mission.

"I've always been on the side of what he was doing, but I've never spoken out," she said, teary-eyed, after the service. "I just felt it was important to finally speak out with my presence."

The funeral also drew some abortion opponents. More than a dozen members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, which have picketed burials around the country, held signs and sang songs at the corner of First and Volutsia, about a block and a half from the church.

Police kept the protesters at a distance, citing a state law that says they cannot be within 150 feet of a funeral one hour before the service, during it or two hours after it.

Shirley Phelps-Roper sang "Killing children makes God angry," to the tune of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

Across the street, counter-protester Kelly McCormick of Derby yelled, "Blah, blah, blah," back at the Westboro protesters.

At one point, the Rev. John Martin, pastor of College Hill United Methodist Church, approached the Westboro protesters and offered them a white carnation. His church members were distributing the flowers to funeral guests as "a sign of hope and love," Martin said.

Members of the church shouted in Martin's face as he approached, and a police officer warned him to back away from the group. He left.

Tiller's children share memories of Dad

During the service, each of Tiller's four children shared reflections of their father. They and many other funeralgoers, including the Rev. Lowell Michelson, pastor of Reformation, wore Tiller's trademark "Attitude is everything" buttons on their shirts or robes.

Tiller's oldest child, Jennifer, said her father loved to relay axioms, "pearls of wisdom for how life should be lived."

Baskets in the church lobby held copies of a page marked "Dr. Tillerisms" for guests to read and take home.

Tiller recently told Jennifer that "life is like an Impressionist painting," she said. "'When you are up close to it, it can be confusing and not make any sense.... Only when you stand back from it can you see the broad, masterful strokes of the artist.' And then he laughed at himself," she said.

After her father's death and the outpouring of condolences, sympathy and stories, "I thought, well, if life is a painting, then Dad, you're the artist," Jennifer said, addressing the congregation.

"Your painting certainly had color and confusion at times. All the small dots and sweeps of the brush were each and every day of your life.... Maybe my dad wasn't even aware of what he painted because he was so close to it. Maybe he had no idea how it was all going to work out. But for sure, he believed in his art. He believed in the effort and the joy of his work. He loved the feel of the brush in his hand and the paint on canvas, and he kept painting because he had faith and because he loved it.

"As I look out on you today -- all of you, in many colors -- I see all the brush stokes. I see all the dots. I see all the people, the color, the canvas of my dad's life.

"I can stand back from it and I can see the plan. I can see the whole picture. He really did paint an incredible masterpiece, and it's you. It's all of you. You are my dad's living masterpiece."

Tiller's youngest child, Krista, shared a letter her father had written to her when she was 13 years old, after losing a race.

"'I'm proud of the way you handled yourself -- no whining or complaining today,' " Tiller wrote. "'One race does not spoil the entire racing season. Remember, nobody wins all the time -- not Dad, not Mom... Be gracious in victory, never arrogant. Share the credit and the praise.

"'And the sting and the loneliness and the depression of defeat or setback will be less severe. Because the friends with whom you have shared the good times will not abandon you in the bad times.

"'Love, Dad.' Underline, underline," Krista added, chuckling.

Tiller's daughter Rebecca said she shared her father's "warped sense of humor" and his love for action movies and "Star Trek." Years ago, Tiller gave Rebecca a poster of Star Trek axioms -- "Star Trexioms," she said. She says he told her, "Read these every day before you go out, and you will be successful in life.'" Then she shared several: "Seek out new life and new civilizations."

"Keep your phaser on stun."

"Humans are highly illogical."

"Enemies are often invisible. Like Klingons, they can be cloaked."

His two favorites reflect Tiller's life and philosophy, she said, fighting back tears. "'Live long and prosper.' And 'When going out into the universe, remember: Boldly go where no man has gone before.' "

The eulogy: 'Heaven will never be the same'

Larry Borcherding of Overland Park, a fraternity brother and friend of George Tiller's for more than 50 years, delivered the eulogy at Tiller's funeral at College Hill United Methodist Church: "For me to have been asked to eulogize George, who was one of the most accomplished communicators, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever known, is truly and honor and, I've got to admit, somewhat awesome."

Borcherding described Tiller as someone who "always put us first," even when he was experiencing threats to his life and security.

"I'll not get into any of the current political and media frenzy," he said. "George's constant challenges over these last decades have been exemplary of his brave, courageous, passionate and dedicated attitude... most of which the common man can't even comprehend.

"George continued to meet challenges and their associated experiences and overcame the tough ones time after time after time until Sunday, May 31, at his church, when he was tragically taken from us.

"He went to be in that better place. And dear God, get heaven ready, because Mr. Enthusiasm is coming. Heaven will never be the same."

Borcherding and Tiller were members of Delta Chi at the University of Kansas. He said friends called Tiller "Tuna" because he attended college on a swimming scholarship.

Tiller's children and grandchildren called him "Papa."

"George loved his family, there's no question of that," Borcherding said. "Aren't you all proud to be George's family? What a gift of family he has given you.

"All of the traditions, all of his love of skiing and music and the shopping trips and going to Colorado and traveling the world. Probably the most important of anything, though, is the one-on-one time that you each had with him.

"Let your minds and hearts wander through the love of a remarkable husband, dad and grandfather."

The sanctuary and overflow rooms of the church were full for Tiller's funeral, which began at 10 a.m.

The classic hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" began the funeral service. The front of the program read, "Kindness, Courtesy, Justice, Love, Respect: A Service of Thanksgiving to God Celebrating the Life of Dr. George R. Tiller."

Readings included the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace."

The Gospel reading was John 11:25-26 and 14:1-7.

One of the pallbearers was Colorado abortion provider Warren Hern.

A video screen in the overflow room where guests and members of the media were gathered showed scenes from the front of the church, where a portrait of Tiller sat beside a wreath of flowers with the phrase "Trust Women."

The funeral ended at 11:25 a.m. with a rousing version of "Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises," with piano, bongo drums and many voices.

Scenes before the service

Before the service began, guests were standing along the sides of the fellowship hall, which was warm. Martin, the College Hill pastor, scanned the church kitchen looking for water bottles to have on hand for overheated funeralgoers.

Prior to the service, members of his church handed out white carnations to guests "as a sign of hope and love," Martin said.

Wendy Anderson, spokeswoman for Tiller family, distributed written copies of this statement:

"Family, friends and colleagues have come together to celebrate the life of a devoted humanitarian and loving father, grandfather and husband, George R. Tiller, M.D. People are here today from across the country to celebrate and honor the life of a man who wholeheartedly dedicated his life to kindness, courtesy, justice, love and respect."

More than 50 American Legion Riders arrived at the funeral at 8:24 a.m., riding east along First Street in front of the church.

Cregg "Bronco 6" Hansen, of Derby, a spokesman for the group, said the group was not there because of the abortion issue.

"We're here in respect for George Tiller's Naval service. We're here because he was a veteran," Hansen said.

Police and others arrived on the scene as early as 7 a.m., expecting a large crowd. At 8 a.m., security already was tight, and parking was getting scarce.

Police set cones along some side streets around the church to prevent motorists from stopping or parking in no-parking zones. Some who live in the area were in yards and on porches watching.

At least one protester was there as well.

Daren Buchanan of Wichita arrived at the church at about 7 a.m. carrying a sign that says "Pro-Life (does not equal) terrorism." He said he feels the pro-life movement "has kind of been under attack for the past week."

"I don't support what Tiller did for a living," Buchanan said. "But I was really hurt by the way some people... have kind of turned this into a bash-fest against conservatives in general."

Check Kansas.com throughout the day for updates.

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