Billy Graham

Billy Graham celebrated, laid to rest in hometown during his ‘Last Crusade’

Billy Graham was remembered Friday as a nurturing father, a lovable brother and a humble farm boy-turned-evangelist who lived the Christian Gospel he preached in all corners of the world.

His funeral service under a massive tent at the Billy Graham Library in his hometown of Charlotte drew more than 2,000 guests, including President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, governors, senators, religious leaders, celebrities and longtime Graham family friends. It was the kind of star-studded turnout that would have made Graham blush, suggested some of the speakers, who lauded this pastor to presidents and everyday people for always trying to steer the attention away from himself and toward Jesus Christ.

Family members escorted Graham’s plain wooden casket into the 28,000-square-foot tent, which was meant to harken back to Graham’s 1949 crusade in a “canvas cathedral” in downtown Los Angeles that shot him to national attention.

He died at age 99 on Feb. 21.

Graham’s son Franklin, who leads the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), an organization his father founded in 1950, delivered the funeral message from a pulpit that his father used for his crusades in the 1990s. His remarks were equal parts warm remembrance, strict interpretation of the Bible and altar call.

“My father’s greatest longing has been granted,” the younger Graham said. “He’s in the presence of God.”

It was chilly inside the tent, with many rubbing their hands to stay warm. But the mood at this service honoring a man who often said he looked forward to death was more celebratory than somber, more respectful than emotional. And it was efficient, finishing in less than 90 minutes – right on schedule.

Franklin Graham recalled his father’s love of his late wife, Ruth, his sense of humor and joy in his grandchildren. “The Billy Graham that the world saw on TV, and in the big stadiums, is the same Billy Graham we saw at home,” he said. “There weren’t two Billy Grahams.”

But Graham said the late evangelist also believed in heaven and hell, and in the Bible as the infallible word of God: “He didn’t understand it all, but he sure believed it all.”

In an era of political correctness, he added, some “want you to believe there are many roads to God. It’s just not true.

“Daddy, I won’t see you on this earth again,” he ended, gazing at the casket before him, “but I will see you again, and maybe soon.”

Graham, other members of the family and employees of the BGEA have long considered the funeral as Billy Graham’s “Last Crusade,” in the hope that it would generate more interest in the Gospel.

Up to 500 members of the media covered the event. The guests included delegates from 50 countries. Ministers from the Middle East, South Korea and India took part – including Billy Kim, who was Graham’s translator at a 1973 crusade in Seoul, South Korea that drew 1.1 million people.

Graham and his longtime music director, Cliff Barrows, who died in 2016, planned the funeral, including favorite hymns and Bible verses, years ago.

Besides Franklin, Graham’s four other children and his sole surviving sister, Jean Ford, also spoke briefly, mixing family jokes that made Trump chortle with tearful memories of their father. Ford gestured to the Graham homestead, which had been moved to the library in 2006 and stood behind the podium.

“You’re here because you love him,” Ford said, “but you didn’t love him as long as I did. The president, when he saw me today said, ‘My goodness, your family has good genes.’ Well, he didn’t know my name was Jean.”

Daughter Anne Graham Lotz, a Raleigh-based evangelist and founder of the nonprofit AnGeL Ministries, fired up the crowd with some preaching and recalled her father’s probing questions during the family’s daily devotionals.

“My mother taught me by her example to love reading my Bible every day,” she said. “My daddy, by his example, taught me to think about what I read.”

Graham was away for months headlining crusades when his children were growing up. He was present for only one of their births – youngest child Nelson “Ned” Graham. But on Friday, this son told the guests: “I just want you to know that my father was FAT – faithful, available, teachable. May we all be that way.”

Christian singer Michael W. Smith, who sang Wednesday as Graham’s body lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, sang “Above All” as he has at past crusades. Bishop George Battle Jr. of the AME Zion Church in Charlotte, a member of the BGEA board, gave the closing prayer, followed by a bagpipe escort of “Amazing Grace.”

Eleven of Graham’s grandsons, and a 12th man married to a granddaughter, served as pallbearers to carry the pine casket to and from the tent.

Trump did not speak to the gathering.

Nearly two hours after the funeral service ended, a half-hour interment ceremony at Graham’s gravesite, next to his wife Ruth at the foot of the library’s cross-shaped Prayer Garden, began at about 3:20 p.m.

Graham’s personal pastor, Donald Wilton of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, S.C., spoke of his hours of talking with the evangelist, and how he missed his wife, who died in 2007.

“One can only imagine what she must have said to him when he arrived in heaven,” Wilton said. “I'm not going to put words in her mouth, but she probably said, ‘It's about time, Billy.’ 

Then, one by one, Graham’s children stood to place white roses on his casket. He’ll be buried at the foot of the library’s cross-shaped walkway, in the Prayer Garden next to wife Ruth.

Graham’s grave marker of native stone will call him “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” as he wished, and refer to a favorite Bible verse, John 14:6. “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,’  ” the verse says.

‘Towering influence’

Tributes to Graham poured in from guests at the service and from around the world.

Pope Francis sent a message of condolences and respect for Graham’s years of ministry. And among those who attended the funeral was Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, the second-largest U.S. Catholic diocese.

Graham “had a towering influence on me when I was growing up in the ’50s,” Dolan said. Catholic bishops once told their parishioners to stay away from the Protestant Graham’s crusades, but Graham met with Pope John Paul II and built bridges to other Christian denominations.

“He said that we have enough forces against us and that we don’t need to be fighting among ourselves,” Dolan said.

Seats were reserved for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Trump Cabinet member Ben Carson, Sen. Thom Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. Robert Pittenger, Rep. Alma Adams, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson, and commentator Greta Van Susteren. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson settled into his seat.

Other celebrities on hand: entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford; evangelist Jim Bakker; Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church; country singer Ricky Skaggs; Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University; former New York Yankee Bobby Richardson; and pastor Joel Osteen.

Graham “didn’t know until he got (to heaven) how many people were there because he had shared the message of love and hope with them,” Gifford told reporters before the service. “What a homecoming that had to be for him.”

Houston-based televangelist Osteen said Graham “paved the way for people like myself.”

And Furtick, whose middle son, Graham, was named for Billy Graham, summarized the evangelist’s lasting impact: “His faithfulness, integrity, focus, finishing well.”

McCrory, a longtime family friend who was Charlotte’s mayor when the ministry moved its headquarters from Minnesota to Charlotte, said Graham “would probably be embarrassed at all this attention. He was modest and humble.”

But McCrory said Graham left such a big legacy that he deserves to be honored by a big event.

“There’s no doubt: Billy Graham was the most influential person to ever come from Charlotte or North Carolina,” he said. “He had such impact on not only our country but the world.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer