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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Palm Desert, California, family and close friends of the late President Gerald Ford are gathered at the family church for a private prayer service.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: A Marine band played as military pallbearers carried Mr. Ford's flag-draped casket inside St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. Thousands turned out to watch the funeral procession make its way through town and now members of the public are being allowed to file into the church to pay their respects in person.

NPR's Ina Jaffe is there and joins us from Palm Desert. And Ina, we understand the church is keeping its doors open all night to accommodate the public. What have you seen so far?

INA JAFFE: It is keeping its doors open until 8:00 in the morning to accommodate the public. The public is just starting to arrive at the church. But I understand there are 2,000 people at the staging area where the buses are picking them up to take them up here, waiting to come and pay their respects to the late president.

Earlier today, there were invited guests and friends of the Ford family who were in a private service with them. Among them, former secretary of state George Schultz and former congressman Jack Kemp. And we saw them departing church a little while ago.

SIEGEL: The Fords have lived in Southern California for some years now. This was their retirement home. How do you get a sense of their fitting into that community?

JAFFE: Well, they didn't seem all that retired in the 30 years at they've been here. They were very much a part of this community. Beyond there just being a street named after President Ford and an elementary school named after President Ford and the Betty Ford Center being here, which everyone knows well, they really were involved in a lot of charities, in a lot of non-profits.

And in today's Desert Sun, which is a local paper here, was full of little tiny anecdotes of just regular people here talking about their encounters with President Ford and just what a regular guy he was. For example, when there was a theatre here that was in trouble, the city council was deciding whether or not they should pour some money into it to save it, President Ford, who I suppose could have thrown his weight around if he wanted to, went to the city council meeting and waited and spoke during the public comment period in favor of saving the theatre, which the city council then voted to do.

SIEGEL: Now, this day at the church started with a private prayer service for the president's widow and children and a few very close friends. What can you tell us, if anything, about that?

JAFFE: We were really only able to glimpse the very beginning of it. The guard of honor placed the casket in the front of the church, in front of wreaths of white flowers. Mrs. Ford was escorted to the presidential pew, as it's called, because that is where the Fords had been sitting as they've attended this church for decades now.

And when the actual service started, the microphones and cameras were turned off and it was private.

SIEGEL: Now, the service in Palm Desert is the first of several memorials for the late president. Tell us what's next and what's going to happen.

JAFFE: Well, as I said moments ago, the public will be allowed to pay their respects until 8:00 in the morning, and then there will be two ceremonies still here tomorrow. The first one will be the departure ceremony from St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. That would be very much like the one that was held today, but sort of in reverse, with the guard of honor taking the casket out and into the hearse and Mrs. Ford being escorted out, and there will be a military band.

At Palm Springs International Airport, there will be another ceremony and there will be a presentation of arms. There will be “Hail to the Chief” played by another military band and a 21 gun salute by canon. And then the band will play “America the Beautiful” as the family gets onto the plane, the presidential 747 that was flown here today, and they will fly to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. They've been practicing that ritual all day today.

SIEGEL: NPR's Ina Jaffe reporting from Palm Desert, California. Ina, thank you.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

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