Mourners pay respects to 'America's Matriarch' Barbara Bush

Mourners pay respects to 'America's Matriarch' Barbara Bush
Former President George W. Bush accompanied by former first lady Laura Bush follow as pallbearers carry the casket of former first lady Barbara Bush after a funeral service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Four former presidents joined ambassadors, sports stars and hundreds of other mourners at the private funeral for former first lady Barbara Bush.

They filled the nation's largest Episcopal church a day after more than 6,000 people paid their respects to the woman known by many as "America's matriarch".

Former President George H W Bush was helped into St Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston with a wheelchair behind his sons, former President George W Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and other Bush relatives to remember his wife of 73 years.

Mrs Bush died at their home in Houston on Tuesday aged 92.

Seated near the front of the church, in the same pew, were two other former presidents - Bill Clinton and Barack Obama - along with their wives and current first lady Melania Trump.

Flags were flown at half-mast for the wife of the nation's 41st president and mother of the nation's 43rd as the service began.

The church was adorned with sprays of yellow garden roses, yellow snap dragons, antique hydrangeas and other flowers.

Among the 1,500 guests were former Republican Gabby Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, and professional golfer Phil Mickelson, along with Karl Rove, and other former White House staff. Many were seen embracing in the church before the service.

President Donald Trump did not attend to avoid security disruptions and "out of respect for the Bush family and friends attending the service", according to the White House.

He released a statement Saturday saying his "thoughts and prayers" are "with the entire Bush family".

A burial will follow at the Bush Library at Texas University, about 100 miles north-west of Houston. The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek where the couple's three-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.

The family has said Mrs Bush had selected son Jeb Bush to deliver a eulogy along with her long-time friend Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A Baker III, and historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a 2015 biography of her husband.

The funeral programme showed that her grandchildren will also play prominent roles: her granddaughters will offer readings during the service and her grandsons will serve pallbearers.

On Friday, a total of 6,231 people stopped by the church to pay their respects. Many of the women wore the former first lady's favorite colour, blue, and trademark pearls.

After seeing how many people had lined up to pay their respects to his wife, Mr Bush decided to attend - he sat at the front of the church in a wheelchair, offering his hand and smiled as people shook it, for about 15 minutes.

The pair were married longer than any other presidential couple.

One of just two first ladies to have a child elected president, Mrs Bush was widely admired for her plainspoken style and her advocacy for causes including literacy and Aids awareness.

She was also known as the "Enforcer" in her family, the glue who kept the high-powered clan together. Eight of her grandsons will serve as pallbearers.

Jeb Bush told mourners how his mother called her style of mothering him and his siblings "a benevolent dictatorship - but honestly it wasn't always benevolent".

During his eulogy he emphasised how one of the most important lessons she taught him and others was the power of laughter and that joy should be shared.

He choked up at one point, saying his mother - who was known for her self-deprecating remarks about her wrinkles and grey hair - was "beautiful" until the very end.

Bush said he felt priviliged that he had a "front row" seat to the incredible love story that his parents shared.

Mr Meacham called Mrs Bush the "first lady of the greatest generation".

He said she was "candid and comforting, steadfast and straightforward, honest and loving".

The historian recalled her work bringing awareness to Aids patients and in promoting literacy. He also spoke of her quick wit that made her so popular.

And he said she was devoted to her husband - the "only boy she ever kissed".

- PA

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