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‘The first lady of the greatest generation’: Barbara Bush honored for her humor and warmth at funeral in Houston

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke at his mother's funeral on April 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

Former first lady Barbara Bush was remembered by family and friends as a symbol of authenticity and grace during a private funeral Saturday in Houston, where more than 1,000 guests were in attendance, including four former presidents and three former first ladies, as well as the current first lady.

Mourners gathered at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston to celebrate the life of the matriarch of the Bush family, who was the wife of a president and the mother of another. She died Tuesday at 92.

Barbara Bush, matriarch of American political dynasty, dies at 92

Jeb Bush delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family, opening with a joke that he felt his mother's “looming presence” behind him, telling him to “keep it short” and not to “get weepy.” He recalled decades of laughter and lessons with his mother.

“She was our teacher and role model on how to live a life of purpose and meaning,” he said.

Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, emphasized his mother's humor, authenticity and strong will. “She called her style a benevolent dictatorship, but honestly it wasn't always benevolent,” he said, to big laughs from the guests.

Jon Meacham, who wrote a biography of Bush's husband, former president George H.W. Bush, delivered another tribute. “Barbara Bush was the first lady of the greatest generation,” he said, describing her as a “point of light.” Reflecting the celebratory spirit of the ceremony, Meacham drew roaring laughter from the guests, relaying self-deprecating anecdotes about Bush's preference for another author, John Grisham, and her tendency to lovingly prod her children.

Bush's husband, who was in a wheelchair, and her oldest son, former president George W. Bush, sat at the front of the church, along with former first lady Laura Bush. Bush's only living daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch, could be seen with her arm around her father.

Several dignitaries and public figures were in attendance, including former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, and former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, who were seated next to first lady Melania Trump in the front row.

Not in attendance at the Saturday service was President Trump, who wanted to “avoid disruptions” out of respect for the Bush family, the White House said. Former president Jimmy Carter also was not in attendance; he was traveling overseas while his wife, Rosalynn Carter, is recovering from surgery, the Carter Center said in a statement.

Minutes before the start of the service, Trump said on Twitter, “Heading to the Southern White House to watch the Funeral Service of Barbara Bush. First Lady Melania has arrived in Houston to pay our respects. Will be a beautiful day!”

Barbara Bush’s funeral: Why Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton will be there

Koch, Bush’s daughter, read an adapted excerpt from William Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” the same lines recited by Robert F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, in a tribute to his slain brother, former president John F. Kennedy. The passage reads:

And when she shall die
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

In another tribute during the funeral, Susan Baker, the wife of former secretary of state James Baker and Barbara Bush's longtime friend and confidante, called her a “vibrantly beautiful human being.”

While Saturday’s invitation-only service was only for family and friends, a viewing was held on Friday for the public, where people paid their respects at the church until midnight. George H.W. Bush made a last-minute decision to greet mourners at the church.

On Saturday morning, he hosted a reception for the visiting dignitaries before the private service. Meanwhile the church began to fill with less-recognizable friends of the family, including former staffers and Secret Service members who protected them for more than three decades.

Many of the women in attendance eschewed black in favor of a vibrant royal blue, Bush’s signature color. The mood inside the church was celebratory rather than sad — full of hugs and kisses — akin to a reunion of old friends.

Bush's eight grandsons carried the casket out of the church, as George W. Bush pushed his father's wheelchair behind. Guests reached out to both men, jumping up and shaking their hands as they moved toward the door. But no sign of tears.

The Bush family then drove by motorcade about 90 miles to the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where she was buried next to her daughter Robin, who died of leukemia when she was 3 years old.

After the Bush family left for the private burial, guests reflected on the funeral as they waited to board buses back to a staging area about a mile away.

Former Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren said the day perfectly showcased the Bush family’s approach to life.

“Look, George H.W. Is the quintessential gentleman, and she was like that, too,” she said. “She had a great sense of humor and scared some of us in the media, but we loved and were charmed by her. She had a big heart. She really did care.”

Billionaire David Rubinstein said the speakers captured Bush’s her “warmth, humility and wit.” But perhaps the most passionate review came from Rita Hajjar, who co-owns a local pizza restaurant and was dressed in a blue suit, pearls and American flag pin.

“She was the best first lady ever, in my opinion,” said Hajjar, who named a pizza after Bush, who was a customer for 25 years. “She lived in a political era that wasn’t one-sided. She loved everybody.”

Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report from Houston.