Image: Betty Ford's casket leaves church
Rebecca Cook  /  Reuters
Military pallbearers carry the casket of Betty Ford out of the Grace Episcopal Church after a private funeral service Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/14/2011 6:04:26 PM ET 2011-07-14T22:04:26

Former first lady Betty Ford was buried Thursday beside her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, and after a private ceremony where she was remembered for her public battles with breast cancer and alcoholism.

The burial on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids followed a funeral service at a church in her Michigan hometown.

"When Americans remember Betty Ford, many will always think first about how she dealt with illness and how she brought things into the open where they can be faced and fought and conquered," Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said in her eulogy.

She stayed the same candid and completely unpretentious woman through the years, even singing happy birthday to daughter Susan earlier this month, Cheney said.

"I like to think that today, on Gerald Ford's birthday, she is singing to him in heaven," she said. President Ford, who died in 2006, would have turned 98 on Thursday.

Former President Bill Clinton sat next to the Cheneys and former first lady Barbara Bush in Thursday's service at the Grace Episcopal Church.

Ford had been remembered for her activism and pioneering work for addicts at a memorial in California on Tuesday attended by first lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former first lady Rosalynn Carter and others.

On Thursday, son Steven Ford recalled how his mother lovingly raised four children, and said he shared a special bond with his mother and millions of others.

"Nineteen years ago, when I went through my alcoholism, mom was the first one there to comfort me, like she comforted so many others," Steven Ford said.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a former director of the Ford museum, said millions of people who had never met Betty Ford still felt they knew her and millions more wished they could, taking inspiration from her strength.

"More than a liberated woman, Betty Ford was herself a great liberator," Smith said. "Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was to help liberate us all from the crippling limits of labels."

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Citizens lined the Grand Rapids streets along the four-mile motorcade route from the museum to the church on Thursday, watching as the police cars, black SUVs and cars carried Ford's four children and their families to the church for the funeral service.

They later returned to the museum for a private interment.

Some 5,000 people filed past the casket on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, said Matt McLogan, spokesman for the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. They were greeted by family members, including children and grandchildren of the Fords.

Mourners received a card with Betty Ford's portrait on one side and an Emily Dickinson poem on the other. Members of the Michigan State Police and other area police agencies stood near the casket throughout the repose periods.

The visitation period continued Thursday morning when several hours were set aside for members of the public to pay final respects at the museum. Among the last to go by the casket was Geik Geiken, 61, a retired teacher.

'A very important part of Grand Rapids'
"She's just a very real, genuine first lady, probably more so than anyone I can think of," he said of Ford. He said the Fords "are a very important part of Grand Rapids."

The public left candles, flowers, notes and other items at the foot of the museum's sign. An American flag had writing in the white stripes that read "Thanks for teaching us all to be first ladies."

As first lady, Betty Ford publicly tackled breast cancer and a dependence on alcohol and pain pills. She lent her name to two institutions, the Betty Ford Breast Care Services at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and the Betty Ford Center in California.

Story: Home to Betty Ford's rehab center absorbs loss, reflects on her legacy

The Fords remained close to the hearts of Grand Rapids' populace, which Gerald Ford represented in Congress for nearly a quarter century starting in 1949.

While both Fords were born elsewhere, each moved to Grand Rapids as a toddler and grew up in the solidly Republican area. They were married in the Grace Episcopal congregation in 1948.

Over the years, the Fords lent their support to numerous fund-raising efforts in western Michigan.

Once dubbed the "fighting first lady" by Time magazine for her outspoken political views, Ford was a vocal supporter of women's rights while her husband was president from 1974 to 1977.

Ford led early efforts to raise awareness of the battle against breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy in 1974, less than two months after her husband succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon as president.

"At once a traditionalist and a trail blazer, a Sunday school teacher and a Seventh Avenue model, Mrs. Ford was the feminist next door, a free spirit with a dress code," Smith said.

A smaller service was held Wednesday after Ford's casket landed at Gerald R. Ford International Airport and was escorted in a procession to the museum. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other dignitaries attended that service with the Ford family prior to the public viewing. On Tuesday, a service at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California, was attended by 800 people, including former President George W. Bush and first lady Michelle Obama.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Former White House photographer remembers Betty Ford

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