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Family feuds as Mary Richardson Kennedy is buried

Tragedy of estranged wife of Robert Jr who hung herself ends with court wrangle over her body

As someone who lived on the edge of the spotlight that shines on the Kennedys, Mary Richardson Kennedy was there long enough to become a partner in their rituals of grief – she was there when the clan buried Michael Kennedy, killed in a skiing accident in 1997, and John F Kennedy Jr, who died in a plane crash in 1999. Yesterday the gathering was for her, the estranged wife of Robert Kennedy Jr. She was found hanged on Wednesday at the family's estate in a New York suburb.

Relatives and a host of famous friends united for what was described as a "modest" service, held privately. The former tennis champion John McEnroe, film actors Susan Sarandon, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, and the comedy writer Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, were all at St Patrick's Catholic Church in Bedford for the service. According to the programme for the service, Glenn Close, an accomplished Broadway performer before her hit film career, sang during the service.

It was Robert Kennedy Jr, her estranged husband, who delivered the eulogy. He touched the hearse lightly as it departed.

Outside the church, his sister Kerry Kennedy, a close friend of Mary, said: "She was an angel who was brought to us, to live with us here on earth, and I think that God just brought her back up to heaven, and said, 'You don't have to fight for me any more." The 52-year-old was due to be buried near the Kennedy's compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

The two sides of her family, however, had faced off in court in the final hours before the funeral over custody of her body.

One of her brothers, Thomas Richardson, filed a legal motion at a court in White Plains, New York, listing Robert Kennedy as a defendant. Details of the dispute were sealed by a judge, but it came as the Kennedy and Richardson families were finalising arrangements for separate memorial services for her. Mary and Robert Kennedy had been going through a lengthy, contested divorce. Robert declined to speak about the matter after emerging from a court session on Friday. Lawyers for Mary's siblings also declined to comment.

"She struggled so hard, for so long, with mental illness," said Kerry Kennedy. "She fought with dignity, and, in the end, the demons won."

Mary's siblings have announced through their lawyer that they were planning a memorial service in Manhattan.

Mary's death came as a shock to some friends and family, even though the past two years had been tough ones, during which she had been charged twice with driving while intoxicated.

"A lot of times, I don't know how she made it through the day," Robert Kennedy Jr told The New York Times. "She was in a lot of agony."

Robert is the son of Robert F Kennedy, the former US attorney general who was killed in 1968 while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the nephew of the assassinated president John F Kennedy and the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mary entered the family in less-than-storybook circumstances. When she married Robert, she was pregnant with their first child and he was only weeks removed from the divorce of his first wife. Yet the wedding had the usual Kennedy touch of romance and politics. The ceremony was held aboard an environmental research vessel on the Hudson River, which Robert, as an attorney, had been fighting to protect with the environmental group Riverkeeper.

In recent years, police in Bedford had been called several times to the family's home. Twice in 2007, Robert told police that he was afraid his wife would try to hurt herself.

Police have said almost nothing about the circumstances of the death, but the Westchester County medical examiner's office said she died of asphyxiation due to hanging. A person familiar with the investigation says authorities have concluded her death was a suicide.

Mary Kennedy grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, the daughter of a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. With one of her children battling allergies, she co-founded the Food Allergy Initiative, billed as the world's largest private source of funding for food allergy research.

In a statement, her siblings expressed dismay at the way she was being described in some reports, saying it was "wholly inconsistent with the sister we knew and the life she lived".

"She was generous, thoughtful, with a refined aesthetic genius, boundless energy, stamina, and natural elegance," the statement said. "She loved to connect people, with no self-interest, and with great intelligence."