RALEIGH — Elizabeth Edwards was loved, lauded and then laid to rest Saturday in a grave next to the son she lost nearly 15 years ago, a searing family tragedy that compelled her husband to seek public office.
In the intervening years, her poise through the public disintegration of her marriage to John Edwards and her grace during a six-year battle with breast cancer endeared her to millions of people she never met.
Some who knew her best and who eulogized her Saturday said the private Elizabeth Edwards was the same whip smart, witty and intensely competitive woman that the rest of America thought they knew, only more so.
Above all, Elizabeth was authentic, said Hargrave McElroy, a confidant of nearly three decades. She was real. No pretense. No holding back.
Saturdays service was held at Edenton Street Methodist Church, the same downtown Raleigh sanctuary as the 1996 memorial for her 16-year-old son Wade, who died in an automobile accident. A Christmas tree covered with lights and ornaments stood tall to the left of her casket; an illuminated Moravian star dangled from the rafters high above. The altar was covered with white potted poinsettias.
When I talked to my mom about what she wanted for this service, the first thing she said was that she wanted to be here at Edenton Street, because it was so connected to us and so connected to him, said Edwards daughter Cate, 28, speaking for her family from the pulpit.
The biggest difference between being here now and being here back then is, of course, that we dont have my mom to help us get through this. She was always a source of strength, a source of wisdom, a source of grace. She could bring out the brave in anyone. She brought it out in all of us.
In the front pew sat Cates father and her two younger siblings, Emma Claire and Jack. The two-time presidential candidate was silent, tenderly holding the hands of his grieving children. Across the aisle was Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Gov. Bev Perdue and members of the states Congressional delegation and other dignitaries.
Longtime friend Glenn Bergenfield brought laughter from the mourners with stories of his friendship with "sweet, sweet Elizabeth," which began in law school in 1974 and has "sustained me in times both good and wretched."
Down the street, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., known for picketing outside military funerals, brought a small group to picket near Edwards' service. The church members have picketed at the funerals of Coretta Scott King and Jerry Falwell, among many others. A much larger local group, "Line of Love," organized a counterprotest in support of "promoting proper respect for funerals."
As the funeral began, three adults and two children from the Westboro church were on one side of Edenton Street, holding signs denigrating Edwards.
On the other side of the street, in front of the Justice Department building, several hundred counterprotesters gathered in the drizzle. Signs in the crowd said, "God loves Elizabeth Edwards," and others, in pink, said simply, "Hope" and "Hero."
The crowd supporting Edwards sang Christmas carols, the National Anthem and "Lean on Me," the Bill Withers classic. Other supporters circled the block in cars, playing country music as the crowd cheered.
Some supporters brought American flag umbrellas to pass out to the crowd, and one man brought a poster-making kit.
Among the Edwards supporters was Bob Krasnicka, who came from Wake Forest to help.
"I'm sick of hearing about these people going to funerals and spreading their hate," said Krasnicka, 48, referring to the Westboro protesters. Of Edwards, he said, "I know she has young children who don't need to be seeing this kind of hate."
Edwards, 61, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. Her husband was the Democrats' 2004 vice presidential candidate and made a failed bid for the presidency in 2008. The couple separated after John Edwards fathered a child with his mistress.
The couple had four children together, including 12-year-old Emma Claire and 10-year-old Jack.