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 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."
Saturday's service was held at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, the same downtown Raleigh sanctuary that held 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 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 don't 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 Cate's 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 state's Congressional delegation and other dignitaries.
But it was how Elizabeth Edwards, who died at 61, touched the lives of average people that those eulogizing her remembered. McElroy traveled with Edwards on the tour to support her book, "Saving Graces," recounting how her friend would talk with and comfort strangers, some of whom had also lost children. McElroy quoted St. Paul's advice never to neglect showing hospitality, lest you met an angel without knowing it.
"Truth be told, Elizabeth never knew a stranger," McElroy said. "In every new encounter, Elizabeth recognized a new friend who warmed her heart as she seemed to warm theirs. It was my privilege to watch her embrace thousands of people she had never met, even protesters, who she saw as a sign she was really making a difference."
A block away, three adults and two children from a church in Kansas had driven halfway across the country to stand in the cold rain and picket the funeral because of Edwards' call for acceptance of same-sex marriages. Across the street, almost 200 counter-protesters gathered in support of the Edwards family.
Peaceful in the church
The scene was in sharp contrast to the serenity inside the church, where a choir sang the classic hymn "Beautiful River" and a soloist gave a soulful version of "Amazing Grace."
The Rev. Roger V. Elliott made reference to the protesters outside, saying that "Jesus was far more interested in redemption than condemnation," and offered a public plea for people to leave the Edwards family in peace.
Though the couple's estrangement in the last year was well known, John Edwards was said to have been at the family's Chapel Hill home, keeping vigil at his ailing wife's bedside during her final days.
Glenn Bergenfield, a close friend of Elizabeth's since they attended UNC law school together, said the former senator will now dedicate himself to finishing the job of raising Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10.
"They adore and trust and love him, just as Cate does and Wade did," Bergenfield said. "He's a loving and very attentive dad, and, despite his grief over Elizabeth's death, he's strong and will take great care of these kids."
As her health worsened, Elizabeth Edwards composed a lengthy letter for her children to read after she was gone. Cate Edwards shared her mother's words, bringing many in the church to tears.
"I have loved you in the best ways I have known how," the dying mother wrote. "For all I have said about life, I want you to know that all I have ever really needed was you - your love, your presence - to make my life complete. You are a joy to me. I hope you will always know that wherever I am, wherever you are, I have my arms wrapped around you."
The family then left the church for the short drive to Oakwood Cemetery, its massive iron gates swinging closed behind them to assure a private internment. Each day for the two years after Wade died, Elizabeth Edwards went to the historic burial ground known for its old stones and ancient trees. She brought fresh flowers and read aloud to her son from the Bible and his favorite books.
Eventually, she wrote in her book, she began tending to graves of people buried nearby, especially the children.
"I cleaned around Wade like cleaning his room, and I cleaned around Oliver and Joe, since next to each child was his or her parents, who died after them and were unable to tend to the graves themselves. ... It doesn't matter to me whether all this sounds odd. I did it because it made it easier for me to think there would be mothers who came after me to tend to Wade's grave when I no longer could."
She stopped the daily ritual only after Emma Claire was born in 1998.
Bergenfield recounted the story at the earlier public service, as he said goodbye.
"Go now Elizabeth," he said. "Be with Wade. It's been a decade and a half since you lost him. ... Rest easy my beloved friend - sweet, sweet Elizabeth."
Staff writer Andrea Weigl contributed to this report.
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