HOUSTON (REUTERS) - Former US president George H. W. Bush's family took centre stage at his funeral at a Houston church on Thursday (Dec 6), with grandsons who knew him better as "Gampy" serving as honorary pallbearers and his granddaughters reading from the Bible.
Mr Bush, the 41st United States president, died last week in Texas at age 94. His body was flown to Texas on Wednesday evening after a state funeral at Washington's National Cathedral attended by President Donald Trump, the four living former presidents and foreign leaders.
The service began at St Martin's Episcopal Church, where Mr Bush worshipped for more than 50 years, with more than 1,000 attendees singing America The Beautiful. The flag-draped coffin was carried in soon after.
Mr George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and one of the former president's 17 grandchildren, reminisced about fly fishing and sharing Blue Bell Creameries ice cream, a well-known Texas brand, as a child with the man he called "Gampy".
Mr James Baker, who served as Mr Bush's secretary of state and was a longtime friend, eulogised the former president as a peacemaker and "a truly beautiful human being".
"He was not considered a skilled speaker, but his deeds were quite eloquent and he demonstrated their eloquence by carving them into the hard granite of history," Mr Baker said, summarising Mr Bush's accomplishments in foreign policy.
Mourners laughed as Mr Baker recalled how Mr Bush would let him know a conversation was over: "Baker, if you're so smart, why am I president and you're not?"
His voice cracking at moments, Mr Baker said he was at his friend’s deathbed last week.
Raised in an Episcopalian family in Massachusetts, Mr Bush fused his preppy New England background with the more free-wheeling traits of his adoptive state of Texas, where he moved as a young man to work in the oil industry.
This mix was reflected in some of Mr Bush’s musical choices for his funeral: the St Martin’s Parish Choir sang The Battle Hymn Of The Republic, country music star Reba McEntire sang The Lord’s Prayer, and the coffin was carried out of the church at the end of the service to the thunderous rhythm of Onward Christian Soldiers.
Following the service, Mr Bush’s body was being taken by car and train about 130km north-west to his presidential library in College Station, Texas. He will be interred there alongside the graves of his wife Barbara Bush, who died in April, and their daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of three in 1953.
The train is a Union Pacific Corp locomotive, numbered 4141 and bearing the name “George Bush 41” on the side.
Mr Bush, who narrowly escaped death as a naval aviator who was shot down by Japanese forces over the Pacific Ocean in World War II, will be buried with military honours, including a flyover by 21 aircraft from the US Navy.
Mr Bush was president from 1989 to 1993, navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union and expelling former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s forces from oil-rich Kuwait. He supported the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a major civil rights law protecting disabled people from discrimination.
A patrician figure, Mr Bush was voted out of office in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession.
He has also been criticised for supporting tough drug laws that led to the disproportionate incarceration of black people, as well as what activists call an insufficient response to the Aids epidemic when he was in power during some of its deadliest years.
But many tributes in recent days have focused on the former Republican president as a man of integrity and kindness who represented an earlier era of civility in American politics.