HOUSTON (AP) — Barbara Bush was remembered as the “first lady of the greatest generation” during a funeral Saturday attended by four former U.S. presidents and hundreds of other people who filled the church with laughter as much as tears, with many recalling her quick wit and devotion to family.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joked that his mother called her style of mothering him and his siblings “a benevolent dictatorship — but honestly, it wasn’t always benevolent.” He emphasized how she believed in the power of laughter and that joy should be shared.
He said he could still feel her presence Saturday inside the nation’s largest Episcopal church and she would likely have given him advice on his eulogy: “Jeb, keep it short. Don’t drag this out,” he said to chuckles. He met her expectations with a speech lasting about seven minutes.
He choked up at one point while addressing the roughly 1,500 people seated inside the St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, where his parents regularly worshipped, when saying his mother — who was known for her self-deprecating remarks about her wrinkles and gray hair — was “beautiful” until the very end.
He said he felt privileged that he had a “front row” seat to the incredible love story shared by his mother and father, former President George H.W. Bush, who laughed as longtime friends and family recalled his wife’s wicked sense of humor during the nearly two-hour service. After he spoke, Jeb Bush walked over to his father, and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
Presidential historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a 2015 biography on the former president, recalled Barbara Bush’s devotion to her husband of 73 years, noting former George H.W. Bush. is the “only boy she ever kissed.”
Theirs was the longest marriage of any other presidential couple. One of just two first ladies to have a child elected president, Barbara Bush was widely admired for her plainspoken style and was known as the “Enforcer” in her family, the glue who kept the high-powered clan together.
Meacham said it was Barbara Bush’s quick tongue that made her so popular, along with her work promoting literacy and bringing awareness to AIDS patients.
“Barbara Bush was the first lady of the greatest generation,” Meacham said during his eulogy.
The couple’s family, including their five children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, played a prominent role in the service. Granddaughters offered readings, some their voices shaky with emotion, while their eight grandsons were pallbearers.
The Bush family was seated in front of the church. Nearby, two other former presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — along with their wives and current first lady Melania Trump were seated in the same pew. The invitation-only service was also attended by former ambassadors, members of Congress, sports stars and Houston business owners.
A eulogy was also given by Barbara Bush’s longtime friend, Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who said Bush — the wife of the 41st president of the U.S. and mother of the 43rd — was “the secret sauce of this extraordinary family.”
As the funeral ended, George H.W. Bush was pushed in his wheelchair by his son George W. Bush as they followed the casket out of the church’s cavernous sanctuary, which had been adorned with sprays of yellow garden roses, yellow snap dragons and antique hydrangeas.
They stopped along the way to shake hands, as mourners sang “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” which Barbara Bush had requested as the final song. She died on Tuesday , with her husband by her side, at their home in Houston. She was 92.
The burial will be held at her husband’s presidential library at Texas A&M University, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Houston. Hundreds of people lined both sides of the street near the campus ahead of the service.
The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek where the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.
Other guests at the funeral included former Rep. 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 on a gray, cloudy day as flags were flown at half-mast.
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 said his thoughts were with the family.
Melania Trump issued a statement after the funeral saying it was an honor to give her respects to a “fearless” first lady, adding: “Today the world paid tribute to a woman of indisputable character and grace.”
On Friday, more than 6,200 people visited the Houston church during a public viewing. Many of the women wore the former first lady’s favorite color, blue, and trademark pearls.
George H.W. Bush was so moved by how many people had lined up Friday to pay their final respects to his wife that he decided to go. From his wheelchair, he spent about 15 minutes shaking hands with people who had come.
Associated Press journalists John L. Mone and Mark Humphrey in College Station, Texas, and Julie Watson in San Diego, contributed to this report.