"As you can see from the service, music was so important to my grandmother," Jason Carter said during Tuesday's celebration of life honoring former first lady Rosalynn Smith Carter, who died Nov. 19, 2023, at age 96.

Hymns and poetry dotted the 90-minute tribute at Emory University's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where 99-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter sat on the front row with his and Rosalynn's four children and all five living U.S. first ladies — Dr. Jill Biden, Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Jason Carter thanked the women for bringing their "lovely husbands along," gesturing to President Joe Biden and former president Bill Clinton with a smile. 

Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp also attended, along with U.S. Sens Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, former U.N. Ambassador and Mayor Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III, Arthur Blank, representatives of the Carter Center and other notable names in entertainment, media and nonprofit organizations. 


A lifetime of music

Music was an important part of the Carters' public and private lives, from the Allman Brothers' support of Carter's presidential campaign to the 1978 White House Jazz Festival and the recent documentary, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. 

The music in Tuesday's service represented traditional church sounds, Southern gospel chords, classical standbys and many compositions by women. Personal selections bridged the musical styles of Mrs. Carter's lifetime of nearly a century, from swing to rock balladry.

As guests arrived midday in the white stone church with its steeple piercing a spotless blue sky, members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus performed "Nearer, My God, to Thee," composed in 1841 by poet Sarah Flower Adams with music from her sister, Eliza Flower and Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," a 1930s hit that endured through the World War II years. "Amazing Grace" –– a Carter family favorite — made the list, as did Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."

Pianist David Osborne played “Name of Jesus Medley” before the audience rose for a brass quartet and choral rendition of "America the Beautiful."

Although both "America" and the national anthem contain outmoded lyrics, the former likely made the cut over "The Star-Spangled Banner" because its first and most familiar verse, penned by Kathryn Lee Bates on a cross-country trip in 1895, still serves as a reminder of the promise and beauty of the nation today.

Glenn minister the Rev. Mark Westmoreland and Pastor Tony Lowden, who helmed Maranatha Baptist Church, the Carter's home congregation in Plains, Ga., led with prayers as speakers including the Carters' son Chip and daughter Amy, grandchildren and great-grandchildren each took turns in the pulpit.

Lowden quoted the Maya Angelou poem "When Great Trees Fall," stating in its penultimate stanza, "When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile. We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly, see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid, promised walks never taken."

He then evoked scripture, saying, "But .... those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar like wings on eagles ..."

ASO Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie conducts members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus at the service honoring Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta on Nov. 28, 2023.

ASO Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie conducts members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus at the service honoring Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta on Nov. 28, 2023.

Credit: WSB / Pool

Songs of love, faith and comfort

Lowden called Chip Carter to speak, and the Carter's youngest son shared a favorite story about his mother dressing up as a Monarch butterfly for Halloween before the pandemic and going trick-or-treating in his sister Amy's neighborhood without being recognized.

In addition to being a world adventurer and doer of good works, especially in Africa where the Carter Center's health and democracy programs have made an enormous impact, their mother had written to Michelle Obama during her tenure as first lady to request a butterfly garden on the White House grounds, and eventually linked 3,000 public and private gardens from Mexico to Canada, Chip said.

Soon after, during a stately "Great is Thy Faithfulness," a praise song made famous during Billy Graham's early crusades in the late 1950s, the bows of the ASO string quartet fluttered behind Mrs. Carter's pecan casket covered in an elegant spray of champagne roses and azure delphinium before a tearful Amy Carter read a love note written by her father in 1948 when he served in the Navy. 

"...While I am away, I try to convince myself that you are not, could not be as sweet and beautiful as I remember," Amy said as she read her father's words to her mother. "But when I see you, I fall in love with you all over again. Does that seem strange to you? It doesn't to me. Goodbye, darling. Until tomorrow, Jimmy."

The ASO Chamber Chorus then leaned into an a cappella version of the Southern folk hymn "Wondrous Love" in an arrangement crafted decades ago by the orchestra's second director, the late Robert Shaw, and his collaborator Alice Parker. Shaw helped organize the musical events for Carter's inauguration in 1977. 


Bringing darkness into light

Before journalist Judy Woodruff recounted how she met her husband in Plains while reporting on the Carters, the chorus performed 1873's "Blessed Assurance" by Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp and "Morning Has Broken," a memorable hit for singer Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) in the 1970s but first published by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931.

Woodruff said she recognized the warmth and intentionality of Rosalynn Carter, who requested that all former first ladies be included in her celebration, no matter their political parties.

"She would be so pleased that she brought you all together," Woodruff told the women on the front row before touting Mrs. Carter's more than five decades of work to bring mental health issues "out of the shadows and erase the stigma" and saying "her influence on the world will be her monument."

Jason Carter said his grandmother once brought pimento cheese onto a Delta flight in a Tupperware container and made sandwiches for passengers. He said she also "faced down dictators" and recently called her walking cane a "trekking pole," reminding her grandson of what late U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis said about the one thing that mattered during his marches [for voting rights]: 'Don't let them turn you around.'

"I pray we never lose sight of that path," Jason said.

Global connections

The global aspects of the Carters' lives as a president and first lady and as co-founders of the Carter Center influenced the inclusion of two songs about world peace near the end of the program.

Country music stars and Habitat for Humanity ambassadors Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks performed a soft and soulful version of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Imagine," a favorite number of both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, which was released during his first year as governor of Georgia. In 2007, Carter called the song the "new international anthem."

A congregant singalong of "Let There Be Peace on Earth," a song traditionally used for United Nations events, followed, along with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus's  performance of Peter Lutkin's arrangement of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

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After Lowden's benediction, in which he saluted the secret service members who worked beside Mrs. Carter for 46 years, he then proclaimed Rosalynn Carter "alive in 122 countries" and "resting in the arms of Jesus."

As the attendees filtered out into the afternoon sun to "Wind Beneath My Wings," the motorcade began its journey again, carrying Mrs. Carter home to Plains, her favorite songs lingering in countless hearts.