Billy Graham's sister and children speak at his funeral in Charlotte March 2, 2018. Angela Wilhelm/


CHARLOTTE - The world came to Billy Graham on Friday, to say goodbye to a man billed as "America's pastor" but more lovingly remembered by those in attendance as a humble and true servant of God.

The globe-trotting evangelist, who traveled the world for a half-century and preached to 215 million people, was laid to rest on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library, honored by a crowd of 2,000, including friends from overseas and the American president. His boyhood home and a 40-foot glass cross embedded in the barn-like library served as an apt background for the man who grew up on a dairy farm outside Charlotte and went on to become one of the world's most famous Christians.

Graham died Feb. 21 at age 99, but his elder son, Franklin Graham, said at the service his father would be adamant that he is more alive than ever.

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"My most compelling memory of my father is him standing behind this pulpit right here, in stadiums around the country and around the world, his voice booming, proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ," Franklin Graham said. "He often said that, 'Some day you’ll read that I'm dead.' He said, ‘Don’t you believe one word of it. I’ll be more alive than I am now.'"


Sights and sounds from the Billy Graham funeral in Charlotte on Friday, March 2, 2018. Ken Ruinard/Independent Mail

Graham was always proud of his roots as the son of farmers outside of Charlotte, and on Friday his body lay inside a simple pine casket, within sight of his childhood home, moved to the library site years ago, brick by brick. Inmates of the penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, made the plain wooden coffin.

Among the dignitaries attending were President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen. Trump did not speak at the funeral, but earlier this week recounted how his father took him to a Graham crusade in New York City, an event that stuck in his memory.

After the Trumps and Pences took their seats, Graham's grandsons carried the casket into the tent and the service began.

Family members recall Graham

Graham's sister, Jean Graham Ford, noted how odd it was to stand again in front of her childhood home, which she shared with Billy.

"My husband and I just had an argument over which room was mine," she joked, drawing laughter.

She also said that President Trump had mentioned to her that her family must have "good genes" because of their long lives.

More: Photos: Billy Graham's funeral in Charlotte

"He didn't know that my name was Jean," she said, drawing even louder laughter.

Ford said their parents imbued a strong Christian faith in them and taught them the value of hard work and the reward of eternal life. She said heaven came down and took her brother Feb. 21.

"I know what he would want me to say: 'Heaven is coming again, and it would like to take you also,'" she said.

Each of Graham's five children then spoke, in birth order. They were led by Virginia "Gigi" Graham, who recounted how her mother, Ruth Graham, then a 13-year-old living in China, described in a poem her perfect future husband. Ruth Graham, who died in 2007 and is buried on the library grounds, asked for a man whose face would have character, but more importantly she craved a "ruggedness of soul."

"The Lord answered every single one of those prayers of my mother," Gigi Graham said. "I'm grateful that God has brought them together again for eternity."

Anne Graham Lotz, herself a preacher, delivered an impassioned mini-sermon, recounting how her parents read the Bible to the children every day while they were growing up in the family's log home in Montreat. As Billy Graham aged and his eyesight and hearing failed, she would read to him, Lotz said.

Sometimes he would stop her, and they would discuss theology.

"I would always end by saying, 'Daddy, I love you,'" Lotz said.

After reading one of Graham's favorite verses, a passage from Thessalonians about not falling "asleep" spiritually but rather embracing salvation, Lotz ended with, "Daddy, I love you."

After Lotz's fiery speech, which drew "amens" from some in the crowd, youngest daughter Ruth Graham deadpanned, "I have followed her all my life."

She then turned serious, talking about going through a bad divorce and then too quickly jumping into a second marriage, which also ended quickly. Ruth Graham said she was embarrassed and worried about what her parents would say.

"You don’t want to embarrass your father," she said. "But you really don’t want to embarrass Billy Graham."

Arriving at the Montreat home, her stomach in knots, she found her father standing in the driveway. “As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, 'Welcome home,'" Ruth Graham recounted. "There was no blame, there was no shame — just unconditional love. My father was not God, but he showed me what God was like that day."


Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, speaks during his funeral March 2, 2018 in Charlotte. Angela Wilhelm/

Youngest child, Nelson "Ned" Graham followed, saying simply to remember his father as 'FAT' — faithful, available and teachable. May we all be that way."

In a career spanning more than a half-century, Billy Graham preached the Gospel to an estimated 215 million people in more than 185 countries. In America alone, a 2005 Gallup poll found 35 million people, one in six U.S. adults, had heard him preach in person.

Several Christian leaders from overseas attended the funeral, including the Rev. Billy Kim, who recounted attending a Billy Graham crusade in Seoul, South Korea, that drew more than a million people. Kim also credited Graham with spawning the mega-church movement in Korea.

On his last visit with Graham, Kim said the preacher's faculties were fading. But when Gigi Graham her father his "favorite Korean preacher" was in the room, the old man of God lit up.

"You said, 'Let's have one more crusade in Korea,'" Kim recalled, adding that Graham's earthly mission was now complete. "You have finished the course. You have kept the faith."


Funeralgoers arrive to pay their respects to the Rev. Billy Graham. Angela Wilhelm/


A life that touched millions

The service was held under a huge white tent, a nod to Graham’s famous 1949 Los Angeles crusade, held under a similar “canvas cathedral” and extended for five weeks because of its popularity.

More: Minister to millions, Billy Graham in Montreat was both good neighbor and religious outsider

Friday's gathering drew politicians, celebrities and church leaders of other faiths, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York City. Dolan said even though he grew up in a devoutly Catholic home, he and his family would watch Graham on television, spellbound by his powerful message.

Dolan said before the service that the honor of attending Graham’s funeral was “two-fold: it’s personal and communal.

“It’s personal because Billy Graham was a towering influence in my life growing up in the '50s and '60s,” Dolan said. “I watched him. I listened to him, and I said, ‘My, oh my, I’d like to do what he does.’ I think he had an impact on my priestly vocation.”

“Secondly, it’s important to me communally because I am so honored that his family would have invited Catholic representation,” Dolan continued. “Billy was a bridge builder.”

To embrace Catholics in the 1940s and ‘50s as Graham did was not “always blessed,” Dolan said.

Born William Franklin Graham Jr. on Nov. 7, 1918, to William Franklin Graham Sr. and Morrow Coffey Graham, Billy Graham grew up an avid baseball player and fan, and a less-than-ardent Presbyterian. But the flame of Christ's teachings was ignited in him at age 16, when Graham attended a tent revival by legendary preacher Mordecai Ham.

Graham earned a bachelor’s degree in 1943 from Wheaton College in Illinois, but more importantly, he met the love of his there, Ruth McCue Bell. The couple wed in 1943, and raised five children.

Ruth Bell Graham died in June 2007 at age 87.  At her death, Billy Graham said Ruth was his “life partner,” and they were “called by God as a team."

"No one else could have borne the load that she carried,” Billy Graham said in 2007. “She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support."

Ordained at Peniel Baptist Church in Florida in 1939, Graham pastored churches in Illinois from 1941-45. He founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950.

With his penetrating eyes, movie star looks and mesmerizing delivery, Graham seemingly was born for the coming multimedia age, particularly television. Graham had begun his “Hour of Decision” radio program in 1947; it would air for more than 60 years. His regular prime-time TV broadcast, starting in 1957, boosted his fame into the stratosphere.

Graham never wore fame comfortably, though, insisting throughout his life the focus of his ministry should remain on Jesus and the message of salvation.

Most famous North Carolinian

Before the service, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said Graham, a truly humble man, would have been uncomfortable with all the hubbub surrounding his funeral.

“He was modest, he was humble and yet he brought a sense of serenity,” McCrory said, standing outside the funeral tent. “He was actually a guy who you believed him when he said, ‘I don’t want the attention on me.’” 

McCrory also said Graham’s place in the annals of North Carolina history is secure.
“There’s no doubt — Billy Graham was the most influential person to ever come from Charlotte or North Carolina that had such an impact on not only our country, but the world,” McCrory said. 

Graham gave his final television message in 2013, the culmination of his “My Hope America” project which aired on some 480 stations. 

Television personality Kathie Lee Gifford, who also attended Friday's service, said Graham’s funeral was anything but a sorrowful occasion.

“Who told you this is a sad day?” Gifford said with her characteristic zeal. “This is a celebration. This is a triumph of a life well-lived. The first thing he saw was the face of Jesus, and he said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant,’ and he was ushered in to eternal life.’”

Gifford said Graham was always there for her, especially during the dark days when her life and that of late husband Frank Gifford became tabloid fodder. While she teared up talking about Graham, she said they were tears generated by fond memories, not sadness.

“The greatest day in a Christian’s life is the day you leave this world and go on to the better one,” Gifford said. “Billy wouldn’t come back for anything in the world.”

Graham counseled 12 sitting U.S. presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama, and he participated in four swearing-in ceremonies. Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton paid their respects this week with the Graham family at the library, while George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, both in their 90s, sent their regrets that they could not attend.

He did not fear death

Between failing vision and hearing, bouts of pneumonia and a Parkinson’s-like disease that plagued him for decades, Graham certainly understood his mortality. But he never feared dying.

“Do I fear death? No,” Graham told Newsweek magazine in 2005. “I look forward to death, with great anticipation. I am looking forward to seeing God face to face. And that could happen any day."

Those who knew Graham well said he remained a humble servant of God throughout his life, never seeking out public adoration. In 1993, Graham told PBS journalist David Frost that he did expect to go to heaven, but not because of his notoriety.

“Well, I'm going to heaven, not on my good works or because I've preached to all these people or read the Bible,” Graham said. “ I'm going to heaven because of what Christ did on the cross."

In 1993, Graham told Time magazine, “God will raise up different ones (evangelists) who will do it far better.”

It’s unlikely anyone in attendance Friday would agree with that sentiment.

Graham was to be interred next to his wife in the library’s prayer garden in a private service attended by family and close friends Friday afternoon. Ruth Graham was laid to rest there in June 2007.

As his grandsons carefully carried Graham to the gardens for interment, a bagpiper played a hymn that summarized a life devoted to saving others' souls: "Amazing Grace."

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