RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Hundreds of family and friends gathered Saturday to honor the life of Elizabeth Edwards, who has been praised for her strength amid a series of life tragedies that included the death of a son, a betrayal by her husband and a battle with cancer that eventually led to her death.
A funeral for Edwards was being held Saturday afternoon at Edenton Street United Methodist, a Raleigh church that Edwards turned to after her 16-year-old son Wade died in a car crash in 1996.
The memorial brought several political figures, including Sen. John Kerry, who led the Democratic presidential ticket in 2004 that included John Edwards, and North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Vicki Kennedy, wife of late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, were also expected to attend.
Edwards' oldest daughter, 28-year-old Cate, is scheduled to give a eulogy along with two of her mother's longtime friends, Hargrave McElroy and Glenn Bergenfield. John Edwards is not scheduled to speak. The couple had four children together, including 12-year-old Emma Claire and 10-year-old Jack.
McElroy spoke admiringly of the fiery woman who first became a close friend as the couple raised their young children, telling stories of Edwards' expertise at any pursuit that required intellect -- from board games to sports trivia. She said Edwards was always an optimist.
"She knew who she was. She never held back. She was without pretense," McElroy said.
Bergenfield described a woman he first met in law school who challenged her professors with a vibrant mind and who possessed "big world, head-turning, walk-into-the-poll gorgeous" looks. He related anecdotes about how strong she was, but also how she was down-to-earth she was, seeming to care for each stranger she met, disarming campaign operatives with plain language or crawling under a dormroom bed to find clothing Cate had discarded.
"Nothing that she said publicly, as a mother, as an author or as a friend -- none of it fed or was in any way fueled by ego," he said.
Bergenfield described Edwards as a close friend to him and his family -- giving his children thoughtful advice and teaching people around her to "live like it's important."
One of the pallbearers, Tyler Highsmith, was in the car Wade Edwards was driving when he died. He and three other pallbearers -- Michael Lewis, Ellis Roberts and Charles Scarantino -- were pallbearers in Wade Edwards' funeral.
Jennifer Palmieri, who was a senior adviser during John Edwards' presidential campaigns, said the funeral is open to the public because Elizabeth Edwards always insisted on open campaign events -- much to the consternation of staff who wanted to control access. She never wanted tickets issued, even free ones.
"So it may be a little messy getting folks in the church," but that's how she would have wanted it, Palmieri said.
Among the people who gathered on a nearby street hours before the funeral was Barbara Fields, a 65-year-old Raleigh resident who never knew Edwards personally but was impressed by how she handled adversity.
Fields, a 10-year breast cancer survivor who wore a pink scarf with breast cancer logos, said she found comfort in books and speeches by Edwards about the fear and sleepless nights that come with fighting the illness.
"She just carried herself with a quiet dignity," Fields said.
Elizabeth Edwards was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004, a day after the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost to George W. Bush in that year's presidential election. Doctors declared her cancer-free after grueling treatments, but the disease returned in an incurable form in 2007. She died on Tuesday.
Her last years were tumultuous ones, made difficult by her husband's affair and eventual admission that he'd fathered a child with the mistress. John and Elizabeth Edwards separated about a year ago.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)