This article was originally published June 17, 2007.
It began with the solemn wailing of bagpipes and ended with Billy Graham, her husband of almost 64 years, wiping away a tear just after her plywood casket was placed in the hearse.
But in between, Saturday's funeral service for Ruth Bell Graham was almost a festive affair, with her grown children and her 89-year-old sister celebrating a woman they knew as feisty, funny and full of love for Jesus.
Hardly anybody mentioned what the 2,000 or so mourners already knew: that Ruth Graham, who died Thursday at 87, was also the supportive wife behind the world-famous evangelist, raising their kids in the N.C. mountains and enduring some lonely times so he could go off and preach to millions around the world.
Instead, Ruth Graham was remembered as a lover of animals – except for that rattlesnake she once tried to catch with a marshmallow fork.
Daughter Anne Graham Lotz, a Raleigh evangelist, recalled her as a spirit-filled mother who taught her children how to insert their own names into biblical passages to make the messages more personal.
And son Franklin Graham, a cigarette-smoking hellion during his teen years, delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the lengths his mother would go to get him out of bed in the morning.
Once, “Mama, the human alarm clock,” as he called her, got him up by emptying a can of his cigarette butts and ashes on his head. Another time, after he’d locked the door, she did it by spraying cold water through his bedroom window.
“Mama, I’m telling the truth,” he said, addressing her nearby casket, which was adorned with a bed of day lilies.
‘A great reception in heaven’
Billy Graham, 88 and frail, was not scheduled to speak. But when he arrived at the church-like Montreat Conference Center, where the service was held, he let it be known that he wanted to say a few words.
Rising from the front row of the chestnut pews, he took hold of a microphone, thanked everybody for coming and told them he wished they could gaze at her one last time – like he had Friday night at the funeral home in Asheville.
“She's so beautiful,” Graham said. “I sat there a long time last night, looking at her. And I prayed because I know she had a great reception in heaven.”
But even Graham, whose voice was filled with grief, managed to contribute something to the light mood that characterized much of the service.
“God bless all these grandchildren,” he said about the 19 young men and women nearby, all of them wearing white carnations. “Some of them I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of them, I've never seen.”
After the 90-minute service, those grandchildren served as pallbearers, escorting the casket outside as Billy Graham, gripping a walker, followed.
As he left the building, he stopped long enough to wipe away a tear.
Franklin, Anne and the other Graham children stayed behind, greeting mourners – some famous, some everyday people – as they exited the five doors.
Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson, attended with her husband, former Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va.
“She had a wonderful sense of humor,” LBJ’s daughter told the Observer. The Grahams were frequent visitors to the White House and the Johnson Ranch in Texas in the 1960s.
“She once said ‘You really have to believe in miracles – just look at the change in some members of our family’ ” – an obvious reference to Franklin Graham, who cleaned up his act enough to become an evangelist and head of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Also in the pews: Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.; AOL co-founder Steve Case; and movie actress Andie MacDowell, who lives in Asheville and attended Ruth Graham’ 80th birthday party as a friend of the oldest Graham child, Gigi Graham Foreman.
“A very wise woman,” MacDowell said of Ruth Graham. “I don't know how Billy could have had any of those achievements without Ruth.”
Lifetime of devotion
It was a long day for the Graham family.
At 8:15 a.m., the funeral cortege left Morris Funeral Home in Asheville. As the procession made its way to Montreat, state troopers, firefighters and police officers lined the route, standing at attention, their heads bowed.
Graham’s casket, built by three Louisiana State Penitentiary inmates whose names are burned on the side, was then taken to the center’s Anderson Auditorium, where the service was held.
Standing watch for the next few hours: A white-gloved N.C. honor guard from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office .
“I can't even tell you what an honor this is, to be here with the body,” said Detective Rosemary Kuykendall, who said she never talked with Ruth Graham during her life, but did get a wave from her once.
The 2 p.m. service was traditional Presbyterian, presided over by the Rev. Richard White, pastor of Montreat Presbyterian Church, where Ruth Graham used to teach Sunday school.
Billy Graham was also raised Presbyterian, but became a Baptist preacher. Ruth Graham stuck with her denomination – her parents were Presbyterian medical missionaries in China – and refused to be baptized by immersion, the way Baptists do.
White saluted Ruth Graham’s “indomitable spirit, her clever wit, her love of life” – but mostly her devout devotion to Jesus Christ.
Rosa Montgomery, Ruth Graham's older sister, repeatedly cracked up the crowd with stories about growing up in China, where Ruth attracted all manner of animals – including mosquitoes and bedbugs.
“If any bedbugs were in the neighborhood, they'd crawl over me to get to her,” said Montgomery.
The older sister said Ruth was so religious, even from girlhood, that she once prayed to God to let her become a martyr within the year.
“I got under the covers and prayed, ‘Lord, please don't listen to her, she's just a little girl,’ ” said Montgomery, who also produced howls of laughter with her stories of Ruth’s courtship by Billy when they were all students at Wheaton College outside Chicago in the 1940s.
His hair now white, his gait unsteady, Billy Graham eased into a black sedan after the service to escort his wife’s body to Charlotte, where she’ll be buried today in a private service on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library.
Though she lived only in the memories of family and friends Saturday, Ruth Graham did speak – in the book of poems given to each of the mourners and, from the stage, in her poem about dying that was read by daughter Gigi.
“Time to Adore,” which was also printed on the back of the program, is about how earthly death leads to eternal life with Jesus.
“And when I die,” it begins, “I hope my soul ascends slowly, so that I may watch the earth receding out of sight, its vastness growing smaller as I rise, savoring its recession with delight. Anticipating joy is itself a joy These moments of transition will, for me, be time to adore.”
A private interment service will be held today in the Prayer Garden on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. The library is also closed Sundays.