HYANNIS PORT, Massachusetts - President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy at Sen. Edward Kennedy's funeral, memorializing the last political elder of the family that has fascinated Americans with its ambition, style, idealism and tragedies for decades.

Kennedy died late Tuesday night at his Cape Cod home at age 77.

The longtime senator was an ardent supporter of Obama, giving the first black U.S. president a tremendous boost in his campaign for the presidency last year.

The funeral will take place Saturday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica - commonly known as the Mission Church - in the Mission Hill neighbourhood of Boston. Kennedy will be buried the same day at Arlington National Cemetery near his slain brothers.

Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

A stalwart of the Democratic Party, it was Kennedy who jumped into a fractious party presidential nomination fight last year to side with Obama over early favourite Hillary Rodham Clinton. He lit up the Democratic base with his comparisons between young contender Obama and his late brother, former President John F. Kennedy.

"For his family, he was a guardian," Obama said Wednesday. "For America, he was a defender of a dream."

The Massachusetts senator's extended political family of fellow Democrats and rival Republicans, steeled for his death yet still jarred by it, joined in mourning. Kennedy was the Senate's dominant liberal and one of its legendary dealmakers.

He was first elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and he served longer than all but two senators in history.

A black shroud and vase of white roses sat Wednesday on his Senate desk, which John Kennedy had used before him. So dropped the final curtain on "Camelot," the already distant era of the Kennedy dynasty.

A family spokesman said Wednesday that Kennedy's body will pass through sites that were significant to him for at least two hours heads from Cape Cod to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston on Thursday.

Kennedy will lie in repose at Smith Hall, ringed by an honour guard including representatives from each of the four military branches. A memorial service will be held there Friday.

Obama, who has ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings, will deliver a eulogy at a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica on Saturday.

Also buried at Arlington, the military cemetery overlooking the capital city, are John and Robert Kennedy; John Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline; their baby son, Patrick, who died after two days, and their stillborn child.

To Americans and much of the world, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of the nation's most glamorous political family. Of nine children born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith is the only one alive.

He was the last of the famous Kennedy brothers: John the assassinated president, Robert the assassinated senator and presidential candidate, Joseph the aviator killed in action in World War II when Ted was 12.

He lost his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, less than two weeks ago, saw the bright promise of nephew John F. Kennedy Jr. end in a plane crash in 1999 and struggled with excesses of his own until he became a settled elder statesman.

Kennedy's hopes of reaching the White House were dashed in part by his behaviour in the scandal known as Chappaquiddick.

On the night of July 18, 1969, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island, on Martha's Vineyard, and swam to safety while companion Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the car. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident; a judge said his actions probably contributed to the young woman's death. He received a suspended sentence and probation.

In his later years, Kennedy cut a barrel-chested profile, with a swath of white hair, a booming voice and a thick, widely imitated Boston accent. He coupled fist-pumping floor speeches with charm and formidable negotiating skills.

"I think that once he realized he was never going to be president - that that was not the legacy he had to follow - he really worked at becoming the best senator he possibly could," Leahy said. "And he did."

In the Senate, Republicans respected and often befriended him. But his essential liberalism marked him as a lightning rod, too. He proved a handy fundraising foil motivating Republicans to open their wallets to fight anything he stood for.

His illness had sidelined him from an intense debate on health care that would have found him at the core any other time. Politicians were calculating the consequences for Obama's push for expanded health coverage. For several months, at least, Kennedy's death will deprive the Democrats of a vote that could prove crucial for his signature cause of health reform.

Conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, his improbable Republican partner on children's health insurance, volunteerism, student aid and more, said the Senate probably would have had a health care deal by now if Kennedy had been healthy enough to work with him.

"Iconic, larger than life," Hatch said of his friend. "We were like fighting brothers."

Kennedy's legislative legacy includes health insurance for children of the working poor, the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, family leave and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He was also key to passage of the No Child Left Behind Education law and a Medicare drug benefit for the elderly, both championed by Republican President George W. Bush.

Kennedy's survivors include a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen; two sons, Edward Jr. and Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island, and two stepchildren, Caroline and Curran Raclin.

Edward Jr. lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973 at age 12. Kara had a cancerous tumour removed from her lung in 2003. In 1988, Patrick had a non-cancerous tumour pressing on his spine removed. He also has struggled with depression and addiction and recently spent time at an addiction treatment centre.

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