Sen. Edward Kennedy was laid to rest Saturday night alongside his slain brothers at Arlington National Cemetery, as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick read words Kennedy had penned to Pope Benedict XVI.
Kennedy wrote in the letter, "I want you to know, Your Holiness, that in my nearly 50 years of elective office, I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I've worked to welcome the immigrant, fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and been the focus of my work as a United States Senator."
"I know that I have been an imperfect human being but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path," the dying senator wrote, adding that his Roman Catholic faith "has sustained and nurtured and provided solace to me in the darkest hours." He contacted the spiritual leader "with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines. Although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life."
The archbishop emeritus of Washington also read the Vatican's response, silencing reports that Kennedy's letter was unanswered. In the reply, "his Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope."
Kennedy's freshly excavated grave site lies 100 feet from his brother Robert, killed in 1968 while running for president, and is another 100 feet to the eternal flame that has burned since his brother John's assassination in 1963.
As darkness settled over the final resting place of America's fallen troops, a squad of seven riflemen fired three volleys in a traditional military funeral ritual, and a bugler sounded taps. Lightning flickered across the sky.
At a packed funeral Mass earlier Saturday in his hometown, Edward Kennedy was remembered as a fierce competitor, a tender-hearted father, and, in the words of President Obama, "the greatest legislator of all time."
As the strains of America the Beautiful, sung by more than 1,400 voices, rose to the vaulted rafters of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, members of his storied family bore the veteran Massachusetts lawmaker's remains out of the church and into a steady rain.
"My father taught me even the most profound losses are survivable," the senator's eldest son, Teddy Kennedy Jr., told the mourners as he described how the two of them worked to climb an icy hill together after the younger Kennedy lost a leg to cancer.
But the stricken faces in the crowd belied his brave words.
"The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy's shoulders because of who he was, but he surpassed them all because of who he became," President Obama said in a eulogy that culminated the 2½-hour service.
Following the funeral, Kennedy's body was flown to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. One last stately, sentimental procession snaked through D.C.'s streets to the U.S. Capitol, where members of the public had been invited to watch the cortege. Past and present members of Kennedy's staff began lining the marble steps leading up to the doors of the Senate chamber, where Kennedy served for nearly a half-century, to bid him farewell. Ailing Sen Robert ByrdD- W.Va., held an American flag and joined staffers on the steps in the intense summer heat.
Kennedy was then driven across the river for a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
The last of a band of brothers whose father prepped them for political power and whose tragedies and triumphs are intertwined with five decades of the nation's history, Kennedy never became president but he is exiting the national stage as one.
Mourners at his funeral Saturday included former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter and more than 80 current and former members of Congress — a bipartisan delegation that attested to Kennedy's ability to maintain friendships in the face of fierce political differences.
"He could disagree without being disagreeable," said former senator Phil Gramm, a conservative Texas Republican whose fiscal conservatism put him on the opposite side of the unabashedly liberal Kennedy in most debates.
After Kennedy was diagnosed with the brain cancer that killed him Tuesday at the age of 77, Gramm said he wrote him a joking note: "I told him that since I'd always believed God was a conservative, I thought I'd help him out by putting him at the top of my prayer list," Gramm said.
"He wrote me back right away saying, 'Thanks for covering all my bases. I feel better already.' "
Kennedy chose the site of his funeral, a massive Roman Catholic basilica where he prayed for his daugther, Kara, when she was being treated successfully for lung cancer nearby.
The surrounding neighborhood is a cultural polyglot that reflects the latest waves of Boston's newcomers — a Spanish iglesia sat across the street from the basilica as well as a Punjabi market..
It was an appropriate departure point for Kennedy, who always spoke with pride of his own immigrant roots and whose first major legislative victory, in 1965, was the passage of legislation that ended the long-standing bias in U.S. immigration laws for Northern Europeans and opened the door for a wave of immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
For decades, the Kennedy family's knack for drama and pageantry has held the nation spellbound, and the funeral service for the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children was no exception. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and tenor Placido Domingo provided some of the music; Kennedy's relatives delivered the readings and prayers.
Sons Teddy and Patrick struggled at times to get through affectionate reminiscences. Patrick, a Democratic congressman from neighboring Rhode Island, described how his father cared for him during childhood asthma attacks, sometimes holding a cold compress on his son's head until he fell asleep.
Teddy choked up describing how his father insisted on taking him sledding shortly after his cancer surgery. "I know you can do it," he remembered his father telling him. "There is nothing you can't do."
Obama also highlighted the resilience and relentless optimism of a politician who persevered in the face of personal and political catastrophes, including a 1969 car accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned when a car Kennedy was driving veered off a bridge.
Though "he experienced personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible," Obama said, Kennedy taught Americans by example that "individual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in."