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Mourning Begins for Terri Schiavo

As the political battle over Terri Schiavo's (search) life and death wound down, those who claimed to know how the severely brain-damaged woman wanted to die began mourning her.

A small mass led by two priests affiliated with Schiavo's immediate family was held Friday morning outside the Pinellas Park hospice where she died the day before. A dozen or so people who days before were protesting the removal of her feeding tube gathered around the altar in silence amid flowers and candles.

Many of the protesters who had been a fixture on the building's grounds since March 18, when the feeding tube Schiavo depended on for 15 years was removed, had dispersed following her death.

Terri Schiavo, 41, died nearly 14 days after doctors removed the feeding tube that nourished her because she could not feed herself or swallow. She suffered catastrophic brain damage at the age of 26 after a heart attack, brought on by a chemical imbalance associated with bulimia.

Chances were slim that the two warring factions of her family — one led by her widower, Michael Schiavo (search), and the other by her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (search) — would put their differences aside to lay her to rest. But her grieving husband appeared to extend his estranged in-laws an olive branch.

Michael Schiavo welcomed the Schindlers to his wife's funeral in Pennsylvania, but only if they promised to lay down their knives.

"If Mike knew they would come in peace, he would have no problem with it," his brother, Scott Schiavo, told the Associated Press.

Otherwise, Michael Schiavo, as his wife's legal guardian, was going to bury her ashes in a location not disclosed to the media or the Schindlers in Pennsylvania, where they met and married.

The Schindlers planned a funeral mass for early next week. They were trying to find a location that could accommodate what will presumably be a massive turnout, local papers reported.

The Schindlers, who through numerous court filings turned a disagreement with their son-in-law into the nation's longest and most public right-to-die battle, had objections about her death as well. They contend that Terri Schiavo was a devout Roman Catholic and would not have wanted to be cremated; Michael Schiavo disputes that and says he is following her wishes.

An attorney for the Schindlers said they would not fight their son-in-law on the funeral, the AP reported.

The Pinellas County medical examiner's office said an autopsy of Terri Schiavo's body had been completed. Results will not be released for weeks.

Security remained high following death threats made by people upset that her feeding tube was removed. Sheriff's deputies guarded the medical examiner's office, local papers reported. Michael Schiavo's whereabouts were undisclosed; he and his family were still under police protection.

Michael Schiavo and his in-laws stopped speaking in 1993 as disagreements over Terri's condition grew more and more irreconcilable. The atmosphere among the once-close family members has grown only more poisonous since.

The family's internal war was thrust into the national spotlight several years ago when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took a personal interest in the Schindlers' cause. The endorsement of his brother, President Bush, further fanned the flames.

As TV news cameras looked on, politicians and interest groups threw down for either side. What had started as a family matter became a rallying cry for religious pro-life activists and those fearful of intrusive government.

A medical examination of Schiavo's body may settle some disputes.

Michael Schiavo hopes autopsy results will put the lie to allegations he beat his wife and abused her body after she had fallen into a persistent vegetative state. The Schindlers and their allies have painted Schiavo as a less brazen Scott Peterson, nudging his wife to her death so he could be free to pursue other women.

Schiavo, who has two small children with his girlfriend, has said his in-laws encouraged him to move on with his life when it became clear their daughter would not recover.

A planned examination of Terri Schiavo's brain may also settle the question of her diagnosis. The consensus among doctors who have examined her has been that the damage was so extensive that the woman known for her quick smile and intriguing laugh had died long ago. Her parents have resisted that assessment, claiming she began to talk in her final days and said she wanted to live.

Terri Schiavo is now a national symbol for end-of-life issues, and those on opposing sides say they are encouraged her story has motivated Americans to put their final wishes in writing.

But the political wrangling in state legislatures and Congress has only just begun.