Applause echoed in the church as Carter strode past the flower-laden casket holding the remains of her mother, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, and as she took a seat in the front pew next to her father, former President Jimmy Carter.
Hundreds of mourners honored the former first lady on Emory University’s campus Tuesday, recalling her unwavering advocacy for peace, human rights and the most vulnerable. Rosalynn Carter died this month with her family at her side at her home in Southwest Georgia. She was 96 and had been battling dementia.
The former president, 99, who entered home hospice care in February after a series of brief hospital stays, watched his late wife’s tribute service from his wheelchair. A blanket was draped over his legs. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient, he is the longest living former president in U.S. history.
Grandson Jason Carter acknowledged the many state and national political figures in the church, including Gov. Brian Kemp, federal lawmakers and the current and past first ladies. He elicited laughter when he told first lady Jill Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “We also welcome your lovely husbands.” Smiling, President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton applauded.
Jason Carter emphasized Rosalynn Carter’s role as his grandmother. Almost all of her recipes, he remembered, “called for mayonnaise.” He recalled how she once made pimento cheese sandwiches for strangers on a flight and how she routinely slipped $20 bills into birthday cards for him and her other younger loved ones.
He then quoted U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, declaring: “My grandmother doesn’t need a eulogy. Her life was a sermon. And it was a mighty testament to the power of faith and to the power of a deep and determined love.”
The Rev. Mark Westmoreland, Glenn Memorial’s senior pastor, also underscored Rosalynn Carter’s faith: “The way of service and grace in this world is the way of eternal life, even now.”
Next, the Rev. Tony Lowden, the Carters’ personal pastor, recited from Maya Angelou’s poem, “When Greet Trees Fall.”
“When great souls die,” he recited, “the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken.”
Longtime aide and friend Kathryn Cade and journalist Judy Woodruff delivered tributes. And, toward the end of the service, country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sang John Lennon’s ballad “Imagine” and pianist David Osborne performed “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
The 12-page program for the event featured photos of Rosalynn Carter visiting Cambodian refugees and testifying before Congress about mental health in 1979 and then receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom with her husband two decades later. It also included quotes from her about caregiving and the importance of diagnosing and treating mental illnesses.
“Do what you can to show you care about others,” she said, “and you will make our world a better place.”
The church was already near capacity hours before the service was set to start. Escaping from the cold, mourners packed the house of worship’s bottom level, save for the front section reserved for the Carter family and dignitaries. Seated in the fifth row, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and his wife, Carolyn, shook hands with people passing by.
Rosalynn Carter carefully planned the guest list, music and speakers, said Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander, who called Tuesday’s event a “celebration of everything she has done.” Alexander added that thousands of people paid their respects at the Carter Library Monday, arriving on foot, on bikes and in shuttles. In an apartment at the Carter Center, Alexander said, the former president rested ahead of Tuesday’s service. Relatives streamed in and out of the apartment and gathered with him for a family dinner.
When it was his turn to speak Tuesday, James Earl “Chip” Carter III called his mother his hero, saying she was “the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and the thicks and thins of our family’s politics.” His mother, he added, was influential in getting him into rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction.
“She saved my life,” he said.
Leaning down, he kissed her casket before departing the stage and then kissing his father.
Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains is set to hold a private service for the former first lady Wednesday. Afterward, she will be buried at the home she shared with the former president nearby.
AJC staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this report.