GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Vice President Dick Cheney handed the flag which draped Gerald R. Ford's casket to his widow Betty moments before the 38th president was laid to rest at his presidential museum and library in his hometown.
Volleys of ceremonial cannon fire rang out, taps was played, and flights of F-15 Strike Eagles provided a 21-aircraft salute. The echoes of the reverberating cannon fire crackled through the solemn ceremony.
Earlier Wednesday, Ford was remembered as a man not afraid to laugh, make tough decisions or listen to the advice of his independent wife during a funeral service at the church the Fords attended for six decades.
An honor guard carried the casket inside Grace Episcopal Church, where Ford's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the late president's successor, Jimmy Carter, eulogized him with words of praise and gentle remembrances of their friend.
His widow, Betty, wiped away tears as she sat with their four children and more than 300 dignitaries and family friends, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.
"He was one of us," Rumsfeld said, "And that made him special and needed in a dark and dangerous hour for our nation.
"He was a patriot who knew that freedom is precious."
Rumsfeld remembered Ford as a courageous and steady leader who provided an important legacy from his more than 900 days as the nation's chief executive.
Rumsfeld also said the Navy is considering naming a new aircraft carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford. A decision is expected to be announced later this month, Rumsfeld said.
"How fitting it would be that the name Gerald R. Ford will patrol the high seas for decades to come in defense of the nation he loved so much," he said.
"It's commonly said that President Ford healed the nation. And he did," said Rumsfeld, who recently left his post as President Bush's defense secretary.
Carter described the close personal friendship he and Ford had developed over the years.
"I relished his sound advice," Carter said as his wife, Rosalynn, cried. "I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land."
Three of Ford's grandchildren led prayers: Sarah Ford Goodfellow, Tyne Vance Verlanga and Christian Gerald Ford.
In addition to Nicklaus, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and Richard M. DeVos, co-founder of Amway Corp., served as honorary pallbearers.
Thousands of flag-waving mourners lined the roads under sunny skies and a brisk wind as the motorcade bearing Ford's casket traveled between the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Library in downtown Grand Rapids to the East Grand Rapids church before returning to the museum, where Ford was to be buried late Wednesday afternoon on the museum grounds overlooking the Grand River.
After Ford's casket was carried inside the church, most of the people outside left, although hundreds remained until after the funeral to watch his body start its five-mile trip back to the museum.
The funeral service and burial capped six days of official mourning, from services in California to the nation's capital to a 17-hour viewing Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at the museum.
The repose had to be extended Wednesday morning until nearly noon so everyone in line could pay their respects. Some 57,000 mourners, including Boy Scouts paying their respects to a fellow Scout and children bundled up against the cold, waited hours to file past the flag-draped casket during the night. Some stopped and said silent prayers, while others walked by silently.
"We're here to honor him," said Philip Bareham of Lansing, who was the last person to view the casket and whose parents were among Ford's earliest supporters and political allies. "We just love this family. They are so down to earth."
Grand Rapids was the city that Ford called home. His family had belonged to Grace Episcopal Church since the early 1940s.
Richard Norton Smith, an author, presidential historian and former director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Library, also spoke at the funeral, telling mourners how important Ford's hometown was to him.
"Grand Rapids returned his affection many times over and was unforgettably demonstrated by the tens of thousands who stood in line for hours outside the museum, braving the cold to assure that his last night was anything by lonely," Smith said.
Ford played football for the University of Michigan's national championship teams in 1932 and 1933.
Draped over the back of one pew at the funeral was a blue blanket with a block maize "M" emblazoned on it, symbolizing Ford's alma mater. And many of the mourners at the museum and lining the roads during his funeral procession on Wednesday wore Michigan hats and sweat shirts in his honor.
Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned, died Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 93.