Byrd buried in a private funeral

The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was buried Tuesday close to the halls of Congress where he served for longer than anyone else in U.S. history.

Byrd was memorialized at the Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Va., in a simplified version of a public ceremony that was held Friday in Charleston, W.Va. 

He was buried in nearby Columbia Gardens Cemetery beside his wife Erma, who died in 2006. The Byrd family plans to re-bury the couple at a later date in West Virginia, once a site is selected.

Tuesday’s service was a more private, restricted occasion than Friday’s memorial, which aired on C-SPAN and featured a eulogy by President Barack Obama. The coffin of the 92-year-old senator, who died last Monday, arrived at the 60-year-old brick church shortly after 9 a.m., carried by a military honor guard. The coffin was covered in a large bouquet of white roses, with a single red rose to represent his wife, and a Bible nearby opened to the 23rd Psalm, according to a pool report.

Another carryover from Friday’s service was the mountain music that Byrd loved. A recording of the fiddle-based music was playing as the audience assembled in the church’s wooden pews.

Dignitaries that came to honor the senator included Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Byrd’s home-state colleague Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Byrd’s close friend the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The service was filled with old-fashioned hymns and scripture readings and opened with a 21-person choir — in maroon robes — singing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” 

The church’s retired pastor, the Rev. Dr. William H. Smith, reminded the audience how much the Bible was cherished by Byrd, who lived nearby in McLean. Once, Smith recalled, Byrd approached him after a service and recited from memory the 10 verses before and after a passage Smith had used in his sermon.

“He described himself to me as a born-again, old-time-religion, Bible-based Christian,” Smith said. “He was baptized along with Mrs. Byrd at age 19 in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church.”

Smith also remembered Byrd’s favorite scripture was the 11th Chapter of John, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and Lazarus emerges from the tomb bound in burial cloth.

“Loose him,” Jesus says, “and let him go.”

Smith said that phrase is carved on the tombstone at the grave where Byrd and his wife are buried.

“We are grateful to God for him,” Smith said. “Thanks be to God for your servant, Robert.”

To honor Byrd’s love of music, two fellow musicians — fourth-generation fiddler Bobby Taylor and guitarist Andrew Dunlap, both of whom had played with the senator in the past — performed “Amazing Grace.” Byrd was an accomplished fiddler, and relatives said he was dismayed when hand tremors finally forced him to stop.

The senator’s family members rose and spoke of the kindly patriarch they called Papa, a man so powerful he was twice Senate Majority Leader, but so befuddled around the kitchen that he could not correctly brew tea.

Byrd’s daughter, Marjorie Moore, said he would have wanted the speakers “to talk about Erma some.” She did so by reciting a poem Byrd wrote in 1933 when he was 15 — the “girl named Erma James.”

The couple were married for 69 years.

Family members recalled how Byrd mopped floors and cleaned bathrooms after his wife got sick, and how, as she was dying, he held her hand and told her he loved her. He was so grief-stricken at her death that he would often tell visitors how many days it had been since she had passed away.

The Rev. Thomas Phythian, a hospice chaplain and Byrd family acquaintance, referenced the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, in which man is urged to make the most of his talents.

Byrd “certainly didn’t bury any of his talents in the back yard,” Phythian said. “He set the bar high for himself and others to follow.”

At his burial in Columbia Gardens Cemetery, Byrd was given a 21-gun salute, and two flags that had been draped over his coffin were given to his two daughters.