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More than 1,200 at Edwards funeral; protest fizzles

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Edwards eulogized by her daughter, friends
  • Edwards remembered for her love of Christmas, competitive nature
  • Protest by controversial church fizzles
  • Edwards will be buried next to her son Wade; four of his childhood friends are pallbearers

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) -- More than 1,200 mourners, including hundreds who loved and admired Elizabeth Edwards from a distance, packed a Raleigh church Saturday to pay respects to the activist and estranged wife of a failed aspirant to the presidency.

Elizabeth Edwards died Tuesday at the end of a six-year battle with cancer. She was 61.

"She has been a lighthouse to all of us. She's always been that source of light to us. Every lesson she has taught us has become part of our ethic," said Edwards' oldest daughter, Cate, in a eulogy to her mother.

Among those lessons, Cate Edwards jokingly said, was "you'll always regret prints, you'll never regret solids."

Cate Edwards read from a letter her mother wrote her children in anticipation of death. She said her mother was always more concerned about others than she was herself, and had even tried to cheer up friends and family about her cancer fight and impending death.

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Mourners included Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who in 2004 picked Edwards' husband, John, to be his vice presidential running mate in an unsuccessful bid for the White House. John and Elizabeth Edwards separated earlier this year after the former North Carolina senator admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock while the couple was married. John Edwards entered the church Saturday, holding hands with Cate, and the Edwards' two other children, Jack and Emma.

Cate Edwards was preceded at the lectern by her mother's longtime friend Hargrave McElroy, who made the audience laugh with tales of Elizabeth's competitive nature, particularly with games. She also noted Edwards' love of Christmas, describing how the Edwards family, including John Edwards, decorated their Christmas tree last Saturday, just three days before she died.

A friend of Edwards' family said Saturday that Elizabeth Edwards did not plan the funeral or instruct on many details.

One family friend said the mood has been somber: "We all thought we'd have more time to say goodbye."

In addition to the eulogies by McElroy and Cate Edwards, another friend, Glenn Bergenfield spoke, remembering when Elizabeth Edwards told staffers about her cancer. According to Bergenfield, she rubbed their backs as they sat on the couch, then turned to them and told them they had on awful shoes, and outlet shopping was necessary, right then and there.

Others in attendance included North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue; U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina); Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy; John Podesta, a former Clinton administration chief of staff and current head of the Center for American Progress; members of North Carolina's congressional delegation; and more than 100 former campaign staffers.

It was a public ceremony because Edwards was known for insisting, much to the dismay of staffers, that all of her events be open to the public, according to a friend. Edwards did not plan the funeral or instruct many details, so the family decided a public funeral was what she would have wanted, even it added some chaos to the ceremony.

The "public" mourners included several hundred people who packed a balcony inside the church, as well another 150 supporters who gathered a few blocks away from the church for a counter-demonstration against a group of picketers from the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.

The Kansas-based congregation is known for its extremist opposition against homosexuals, Jews and other groups and regularly holds protests at funerals for fallen U.S. service members, saying the war's dead are God's punishment for the country tolerating gays and lesbians.

In the end, only five Westboro congregants showed for the protest, which took place in a cold, steady rain.

Following the service at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, Edwards was to be buried at Raleigh's Historic Oakwood Cemetery, according to the cemetery's office manager Sharon Freed. That ceremony was private, according to a memorial website for Edwards.

Earlier this week, Freed told CNN about the proximity of the burial to Edwards' son Wade, who was buried at the cemetery after dying in a 1996 car crash.

"He is already interred there in a space. And she will be interred there beside him," Freed said.

Four of Elizabeth Edwards' pallbearers were childhood friends of her son. They include Tyler Highsmith, Michael Lewis, Charles Scarantino and Ellis Roberts, who was an aide to John Edwards when he was in the U.S. Senate.

Other pallbearers include longtime friend Bill Spiegel, B.A. Farrell, an Edwards confidant and adviser, and her hospice doctor, Michael Chernier. Trevor Upham, Cate Edwards' fiance is also a pallbearer.

Edwards, who had four children and had worked as a bankruptcy lawyer in Raleigh, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her husband lost his bid for vice president in November 2004.

In 2006, after her initial cancer diagnosis, she wrote "Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers," which chronicled the aftermath of her son's death and her battle with the disease.

In 2008, months after withdrawing from the presidential race, John Edwards admitted that tabloid claims about an extramarital affair with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter were true. Eventually, he also admitted to fathering a child with Hunter -- an allegation he initially vociferously denied even after conceding the affair.

John Edwards said the affair happened in 2006 while his wife's cancer was in remission. He claimed he informed his wife at the time and asked for her forgiveness.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press after her husband admitted to his affair, Elizabeth Edwards said the incident helped her focus on resuming her role as an advocate for the poor and for health care reform. She also said it pushed her to refocus on her role as a mother.

In a September interview on "The Nate Berkus Show," Edwards was asked what she sees when she looks at her estranged husband, John Edwards.

"I see the father of my children, and that's very important to me," she said. "Particularly since I have a terminal disease, this is the person who at some point will take over the primary parenting, and it's important to me that he heal, if he needs to."

The memorial website for Edwards states, "In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which benefits the Wade Edwards Learning Lab." According to the site, the learning lab is a computer and learning center in Raleigh that provides services free of charge.

CNN's Jessica Yellin, Martin Savidge, Bill Mears, John King, Shannon Travis, Sarah Baker and Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.