WILMINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden and his family said goodbye to his eldest son Saturday in an emotional funeral service, where President Barack Obama praised the late Biden scion as “a man who led a life where the means were as important as the ends.”
Joseph Robinette Biden III, known as Beau, a 46-year-old Iraq war veteran and Delaware’s former attorney general, died a week ago of brain cancer.
Over 1,000 mourners were in attendance at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch; Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority and minority leaders; and other administration officials and political figures.
But for all the prominent politicians who attended the event, it was notable for how it captured the intense love shared among Biden family members and those who are closest to them.
Beau’s two siblings, Hunter and Ashley Biden, gave wrenching remarks about the emotional cornerstone their brother had been for them since early childhood, and pledged to provide that same support to his children, Natalie and Hunter, and his widow Hallie.
“The first memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed next to my brother,” Hunter Biden said, apparently referring to the fatal car accident. “I remember my brother who was one year and one day older than me, holding my hand staring into my eyes, saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ over and over again.”
Obama described Beau Biden as a man who could bear life’s burdens.
“You can beg God for a lighter burden, but if you’re strong enough, it can also make you ask God for broader shoulders, shoulders broad enough to bear not only your own burdens but the burdens of others,” Obama said. Beau “would ask God for broader shoulders.”
He recounted Beau’s life: the car wreck that killed his mother and sister and hospitalized him in 1972 when he was a young child; his deployment in Iraq in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps; and his work as attorney general on behalf of “homeowners who were cheated, seniors who were scammed,” and the victims of child predators.
The president recalled attending fundraisers with Beau with wealthy, important people, where he would invariably whisper “something wildly inappropriate in your ear.”
Most of Obama’s eulogy was somber, though.
“He made you want to be a better person,” the president said of Beau, visibly working to keep his composure. “Isn’t that finally the measure of a man, the way he lives, how he treats he others, no matter what life may throw at him?
“We do not know how long we’ve got here. We don’t know when fate will intervene. We cannot discern God’s plan. What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters. We can pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. We can teach them to have broad shoulders.”
In praising both Beau Biden and his father, Obama sketched out his vision of what it means to earn a name as a national political figure.
“It’s not something you can buy. But if you do right by your children, maybe you can pass it on,” he said. “And what greater inheritance is there? What greater inheritance than to be part of a family that passes on the values of what it means to be a great parent; that passes on the values of what it means to be a true citizen; that passes on the values of what it means to give back, fully and freely, without expecting anything in return?”
In his homily preceding the eulogies, the Rev. Leo O’Donovan praised Beau’s service to his country:
“This peerlessly patriotic public servant — gone, gone, gone,” he said. “Beau is gone.”
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno, presenting Beau the Legion of Merit, told the mourners that he had thought Beau Biden would one day become president. Odierno served as commanding general of U.S. Forces in Iraq during the time Beau served there.
“Beau possessed the traits I have witnessed only in the greatest leaders,” the general said in his eulogy. “He had a natural charisma that few people possess.”
The services concluded at 1:20 p.m.
On Thursday, hundreds came to Delaware’s statehouse to pay their respects after a short service; on Friday the family held a wake that attracted a similar outpouring of support.
At Friday’s wake, the vice president greeted mourners and well-wishers in a line that stretched up the main aisle of the church and down another aisle, wrapping itself around multiple times inside the St. Anthony’s gym and extending down the street at least two blocks. Standing a few feet from his son’s casket, Biden and his wife, Jill; Beau’s widow, Hallie; Beau’s brother, Hunter, and his wife, Kathleen; and their sister, Ashley, and her husband, Howard Krein, greeted every single person in turn.
Several prominent lawmakers, as well as current and former Obama administration officials, started arriving in Wilmington on Thursday to pay their respects. Attendees at the wake included Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew; Democratic Sens. Christopher A. Coons, Del., Thomas Carper, Del., Barbara Mikulski, Md., Benjamin Cardin, Md., Joe Donnelly, Ind., Robert Casey Jr., Pa., and Rep. John Lewis, Ga.; Biden’s former chief of staff Bruce Reed; former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod and Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary under Bill Clinton.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who launched his bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination a week ago, and his daughter Tara were among those who came to pay their respects on Friday.
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Max Ehrenfreund reported from Washington. Washington Post staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.