Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia is laid to rest

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B01

When Sen. Robert C. Byrd's niece began to sing "On the Wings of a Snow White Dove" at his funeral Tuesday, she faltered.

Jassowyn Sale Hurd said she had never gotten the chance to sing with the late statesman, and now, as she stood before his polished brown casket in an Arlington church, she briefly forgot the tune.

She apologized. "Let me try this again," she said, and as she did, the congregation assembled to bid the lawmaker a last farewell on a broiling summer day began to softly sing along:

When troubles surround us, when evils come, the body grows weak, the spirit grows numb.

It was a moment that might have made the Democrat from West Virginia smile: the sweet melody, the evocative refrain:

On the wings of a snow-white dove, He sends His pure sweet love.

The longest-serving lawmaker in the history of Congress and proud son of Appalachian Bible country was borne to his rest Tuesday amid the strains of the music he loved and the words of the Scripture he revered.

Byrd, who died June 28 at age 92, was buried beside his wife, Erma, in an Arlington County cemetery after a simple but moving funeral at Arlington's Memorial Baptist Church.

It was the final goodbye in a week of heartfelt salutes to the child of the coal fields who grew up to become a lion of the U.S. Senate and a legend in West Virginia.

Byrd's flag-draped casket arrived a little after 9 a.m. and was carried by a military honor guard from the gleaming hearse into the red-carpeted sanctuary of the 60-year-old brick church on Glebe Road.

The casket, covered in a large bouquet of white roses with a single red rose in honor of Byrd's wife, was placed at the front of the church on a catafalque hung with black, as dignitaries and mourners paused outside in the shade to sign a guestbook.

On a table before the casket, a large Bible was opened to the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd . . . "

The sanctuary was sprinkled with dignitaries, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), former U.S. senator Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died last August.

Byrd was elected to nine terms in the Senate, starting in 1958, and served for almost a quarter of the country's history. He wrote a history of the Senate, was twice majority leader and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Yet his funeral was rich in plain, old-time hymns and readings from Scripture, both of which mourners said the senator would have loved.

The Rev. William H. Smith, the church's retired pastor, reminded those in attendance of how well Byrd knew the Bible.

Smith recalled that once, when he had preached on a certain part of Scripture, Byrd approached him after the service, put his arm around him and recited from memory the 10 verses before and the 10 verses after the section cited.

"He described himself to me as a born-again, old-time-religion, Bible-based Christian," Smith said. "He was baptized along with Mrs. Byrd at age 19 in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church."

Smith recalled that one of Byrd's favorite sections of Scripture was John 11, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

Lazarus emerges from the tomb bound in burial cloth. "Loose him," Jesus says, "and let him go."

Smith said that phrase is carved on the tombstone at the grave where Byrd and his wife are buried.

Two of Byrd's fellow musicians -- fourth-generation fiddler Bobby Taylor and guitarist Andrew Dunlap, both of whom had played with the senator -- performed a haunting version of "Amazing Grace." Byrd was a noted fiddler in his day, and relatives recalled that he was dismayed when hand tremors halted his playing.

He still was able to sing, though.

The senator's family members rose to speak of the kindly patriarch they called Papa, a man so powerful he could help create legislation but so befuddled around the kitchen that he could not correctly brew tea.

His daughter Marjorie Moore said he would have wanted the speakers "to talk about Erma some." She did so by reciting a poem he wrote her in 1933 when he was 15 -- the "girl named Erma James."

They were married for 69 years.

Family members recalled how he mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms at their home in McLean after his wife became sick, and how, as she was dying, he held her hand and told her he loved her.

After she died in March 2006, he was so grief-stricken that he would often tell visitors how many days it had been since she had passed away.

At his burial in Columbia Gardens Cemetery around 1 p.m., Byrd received a 21-gun salute, and two flags that had been draped over his casket were given to his two daughters.

"We are grateful to God for him, for his life," Smith had said earlier. "Thanks be to you, oh God, for your servant Robert."

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