To them, she was more than a first lady.
Rosalynn Carter was the wife with strong opinions and few reservations about sharing them, the mother who had to intervene when her eldest son’s catastrophic attempt at baking a cake led to a kitchen fire, the grandmother who kept a stash of blueberries in the freezer and the great-grandmother who would race toddlers with her walker.
“She was happiest whenever there was a new baby,” Josh Carter, one of her grandsons, recalled on Wednesday from the pulpit of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, the small town in Georgia farm country from which she never strayed too far even as she was drawn out into the world.
The simple red brick church, where Mrs. Carter had worshiped for decades, was filled for her funeral on Wednesday with the people who had known her as a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, neighbor and friend. Her husband, Jimmy, who is 99 and has been in hospice care since February, was also there, sitting in a wheelchair near the front of the church.
Since her death on Nov. 19 at the age of 96, Mrs. Carter has been remembered as a force for change in transforming the role of first lady, challenging stigmas surrounding mental health and taking on diseases like Guinea worm that had once been seen as intractable. A day earlier, in a sprawling sanctuary in Atlanta, she was celebrated by presidents and all of the living first ladies.
But Wednesday’s service was less about the broader world and more about the family she adored and the community she molded.
“Her family, her neighbors, her friends all knew her to be someone who did not think of herself but rather others, and others’ needs,” said the Rev. Tony Lowden, a former pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church who had grown close to the Carters in recent years.
The service explored what might look like a remarkable contrast. Mrs. Carter lived a seemingly boundless life as she soared to the highest reaches of political influence and ventured to some 122 countries. Yet she also felt the constant pull of home, returning to the comfort she found in Plains, which is dozens of miles from any interstate highway or even a stoplight. She was buried there on Wednesday, on the grounds of the modest ranch home she and Mr. Carter built in 1961, just off the town’s main road.
Her children and grandchildren portrayed her as formidable, with an unrelenting drive that many regarded as instrumental to her husband’s ascent to the presidency and the success of their work with the Carter Center after leaving the White House. She was also described as defying gender norms as her marriage evolved into a relationship that had “equal footing,” as John William Carter, her eldest son, put it.
“It occurs to me that Dad got used to Mom disagreeing with him because she was really good at it,” her son said during the service. “She became a partner in the true sense of the word.”
He believed that sense of resolve and the firm diplomacy of a parent raising a large family — with three sons and a daughter — was evident at the memorial service in Atlanta on Tuesday, where, at Mrs. Carter’s invitation, Democrats and Republicans stood side by side.
“My mother had a funeral with three presidents and six first ladies,” John William Carter, known as Jack, said, “and I believe the reason she was able to do that was because of what she learned from us boys and what she had taught my father.”
Josh Carter said that his grandmother had not been motivated by power, particularly when it came to her work on mental and public health issues and protecting democracy. “Mom was motivated by the people,” he said. “She saw people in forgotten corners of forgotten places as people who have hopes and dreams and are worthy of love.”
He pointed out that he called her Mom because she was just 47 when her first grandson was born — much too young to be called a grandmother, she argued. And so, he would always have to clarify: “Do you mean ‘Mom’ mom” — his own mother — or ‘Rosalynn’ mom?’”
Josh Carter also remembered seeing her in a boardroom at the Carter Center — where she and her husband hosted world leaders and held important meetings — chasing toddlers and playing peekaboo.
And he recalled family vacations with his grandparents to Disney World. She loved Tower of Terror, a ride that is a simulation of a free-falling elevator. “A lot of the Secret Service did not share this opinion,” he said.
In his eulogy, Pastor Lowden encouraged people to look at Mrs. Carter’s life as a lesson, noting how widely loved she was, even by people who did not know her. It was virtually impossible, he said, to “find anyone who has anything bad to say about Rosalynn Carter — not one word, not a news article, never even one person on the left or anybody on the right.”
But she did not achieve that, he said, by staying out of the fray and keeping silent. It was very much the opposite. “Will the women around our nation have a little bit of Rosalynn in them?” he said. “Are they willing to fight for those who are hurting, broken, crushed in spirit?”
He could see her influence within their church community, as she and her husband remained active in the church well into their 90s. Maranatha Baptist Church had been founded by people who left Plains Baptist Church in the 1970s after that congregation voted against allowing Black members to join.
“She loved you,” Pastor Lowden told the congregation at Maranatha. “She loved this church, she loved why it was created and she loved what it stood for.”
She also loved her husband, he said.
“I’ve won the prize,” Pastor Lowden said, imagining the message Mrs. Carter would want to relay to her husband from the afterlife. “Tell him I’ve beat him, and I’m waiting on him.”