Billy Graham’s Sons Argue Over a Final Resting Place
MONTREAT, N.C. — It is a struggle worthy of the Old Testament, pitting brother against brother, son against mother, and leaving the famous father, the Rev. Billy Graham, trapped in the middle, pondering what to do.
Retired and almost blind at 88, the evangelist is sitting in his modest log house on an isolated mountaintop in western North Carolina and listening to a family friend describe where Franklin Graham, heir to his father’s worldwide ministry, wants to bury his parents.
Billy’s wife, Ruth Bell Graham, is listening too, curled up in a hospital bed on this bleak November evening. At 86 and 100 pounds, she suffers from degeneration of the spine, which keeps her in constant pain. In a nightgown, quilted pink silk bed jacket and pearl earrings, she stares up at the longtime friend on her right, her face and mind alert. On her left sits her younger son, Ned, 48, who has taken care of her and Billy for almost four years, and Ned’s wife, Christina.
Events will unfold quickly in the days afterward: more meetings at the house, prayers offered and a notarized document produced that Ruth signed before six witnesses.
But at this moment everyone’s attention is on the visitor, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who is talking about a memorial “library” that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, headed by Franklin, is building in Charlotte. Cornwell toured the building site and saw the proposed burial plot. She was asked by Ned, who opposes Franklin’s choice, to come and give his father her impression.
“I was horrified by what I saw,” she tells Billy, in the presence of a reporter invited to be there.
The building, designed in part by consultants who used to work for the Walt Disney Co., is not a library, she says, but a large barn and silo — a reminder of Billy Graham’s early childhood on a dairy farm near Charlotte. Once it’s completed in the spring, visitors will pass through a 40-foot-high glass entry cut in the shape of a cross and be greeted by a mechanical talking cow. They will follow a path of straw through rooms full of multimedia exhibits. At the end of the tour, they will be pointed toward a stone walk, also in the shape of a cross, that leads to a garden where the bodies of Billy and Ruth Graham could lie.
Throughout the tour, there will be several opportunities for people to put their names on a mailing list.
“The whole purpose of this evangelistic experience is fundraising,” Cornwell says to Billy Graham. “I know who you are and you are not that place. It’s a mockery. People are going to laugh. Please don’t be buried there.”
Billy Graham’s eyes never leave Cornwell’s face as she talks. Ruth Graham sighs. A lot.
“It’s a circus,” Ruth says at one point, softly. “A tourist attraction.”
Ruth Graham has told her children that she doesn’t want to be buried in Charlotte. She has a burial spot picked out in the mountains where she raised five children, and she hopes her husband will join her there.
Ned Graham has been working to convince his three sisters, Gigi, Bunny and Anne, that their mother’s wishes should be followed.
But six years ago, Franklin, 54, took over the BGEA and now is trying to convince their dad of the appropriateness of the Charlotte burial site, Ned and another family member say.
Franklin, in a telephone interview, says no decision has been made. “Some of the board members feel the library ought to be the place,” he says, declining to name which members. “I’m preparing both places.”
Of the library, he said, “I wanted to show to another generation of pastors and evangelists what God did through a man who was faithful and who communicated it simply.”
After Cornwell finishes, Ned Graham speaks to his father.
“Could you see going to a Ronald Reagan library and there not be one book?” he asks. “Or people being solicited to be on a donor list?” He wipes his eyes; his mother, tissue in hand, wipes hers.
Billy Graham, who has Parkinson’s disease, sits erect in an orthopedic chair, dressed in pressed bluejeans and a pale yellow pullover. His famous rugged face remains impassive except for something Ned notices: He’s grinding his teeth.
His dad, he says, does this when he’s upset. And why wouldn’t he be?
The burial issue threatens to tear asunder what some have called the royal family of American religion, and Billy is being asked to make a Solomon-like choice between the wishes of his heir and his wife of 63 years.
The Preacher’s Wife
According to those who know her, Ruth Bell Graham has always spoken her mind. When she and Billy married in 1943, Ruth, raised by Presbyterian missionaries in China, told her husband, a Southern Baptist, that she would remain a Presbyterian. When Billy announced in 1947 that he wanted to become a full-time traveling evangelist, she insisted that they settle in Montreat, a hamlet in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so that she and the children could be near family.
With his tall frame and Hollywood good looks, Graham drew record crowds to his Billy Graham Crusades and became so popular that between 1950 and 1990, he appeared on the Gallup Organization’s “Most Admired” list more often than any other American.
He traveled as much as six months at a time and while he was away, Ruth was raising their children in a house built from logs found on abandoned farm sites. Her children say that she was fearless and fun, a mom who thought nothing of chopping off the heads of rattlesnakes or driving a motocross bike into a split-rail fence when she realized she didn’t know how to stop it.
As teenagers, the children struggled with the expectations that come with being a preacher’s kids. Both boys, Franklin and Ned, fell in love with fast cars, drinking and girls and were no strangers to the local police. Eventually, however, four of the children started their own ministries, the largest of which is Franklin’s international relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse.
Though initially, according to family members and news reports, Billy and several other BGEA board members had reservations about Franklin succeeding his father because of his limited experience, in 1995 the board named Franklin vice chair.
The Charlotte Site
As its new CEO, Franklin, who has the tall, leonine looks of his father and the feisty nature of his mom, persuaded the BGEA board to move the organization from its longtime headquarters in Minneapolis to Charlotte, near where Billy Graham was born. It was a logical choice, and not just for nostalgic reasons: Charlotte’s business elite had always been big supporters of the Billy Graham Crusades, raising as much as $1 million for the preaching tour each time it came to town.
Though growing in population, Charlotte was experiencing something of an economic downturn in the late 1990s. The new BGEA headquarters would pump money and jobs into the local economy. Franklin Graham and Graeme Keith, a major developer in Charlotte and a BGEA board member, began envisioning something else as well, a Billy Graham memorial that might attract 200,000 or more tourists to Charlotte — putting it up there with the nearby Paramount Carowinds theme park and a planned NASCAR Hall of Fame.
In 2001, the organization purchased 63 acres of land adjacent to a major highway (named years earlier for Billy Graham) for $7.4 million. In 2005, the new corporate headquarters was completed, a 200,000-square-foot building of fieldstone, cedar and glass costing almost $44 million. Then Franklin turned his attention to the memorial library, which he sees as a tool for evangelism.
“I would hope every person who comes through hears the message and by the time they come out of the library be confronted with a decision to accept or reject Christ.”
The library was, by all accounts, not something his father initially wanted. In fact, Billy Graham abstained when the board first voted on the idea. Though Billy has hobnobbed with the rich and mighty for more than a half-century, observers have often commented on his humility. Unlike Franklin, who collects handmade cowboy boots and leather jackets, Billy wears old suits that, as Johnny Cash once said, look like they came from a JCPenney store.
According to Graeme Keith, the board tossed around several ideas for the library, including something like the stucco-and-tile Reagan Presidential Library in California. Finally, Franklin suggested a house resembling the one Billy grew up in, plus a barn, to be called the library. Convinced by Franklin and others that this new building would perpetuate the Gospel after he died, Billy gave it his blessing.
The 40,000-square-foot structure has a high-pitched roof supported by unfinished wooden beams, and bathroom stalls of corrugated tin. The tour is geared particularly to children, according to Franklin, starting with the life-size mechanical Holstein named Bessie who greets visitors from her stall just inside the front door.
What Bessie will say is yet to be decided, Franklin said, but she might start off with something like, “Hello. I bet you didn’t know milk comes from a cow. Well, let me tell you about that.” She’ll then introduce the main man: “When Billy was young, we cows knew there was something special about him. . . .” Bessie will challenge youngsters to count how many times during the tour they hear the voice of “Billy Frank” mention Jesus. For their efforts, they’ll be offered a glass of milk at the snack stand, where cookies and other items will be on sale.
“One of my concerns is how do you engage a child,” Franklin said. “To see pictures of a man preaching in black and white, that isn’t going to do it.”
Franklin says the library also will house some of his father’s writings and memorabilia taken from the Cove, another piece of BGEA property about 100 miles west of Charlotte in Asheville. As it turns out, it is also where his mother wants to be buried.
Nestled in forests of poplar, locust and Southern pine, invisible from the highway except for a single gray steeple, the 1,500-acre Cove was Ruth’s project from its beginning in 1984. She believed that people working hard for Christ, in whatever capacity, needed a place where they could idle in a rocking chair, stare at the mountains, and find new energy to continue their work. Her husband and his board agreed, setting up the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.
Ruth worked closely with architects and construction engineers on the classrooms, auditorium and guest accommodations. A small library was established and as years went by, books given to Billy, inscribed by the world leaders who wrote them, found their way there. Glass cabinets today display some of the thousands of gifts he acquired: a Ten Commandments tablet from movie producer Cecil B. DeMille, a letter opener from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and porcelain and silver from visits to China, North Korea and Russia.
In his early years on the BGEA board, Franklin directed millions of dollars to the Cove, which is 18 miles from Montreat. But once plans for the new library in Charlotte were underway, he turned to the Cove for money. The BGEA sold its 300-acre campground, transferred money earned from the Cove’s endowment to the library’s endowment, and laid off Cove staff.
The Cove Location
When Ruth was supervising construction at the Cove, she paid particular attention to the chapel, a spare yet elegant stone edifice built by local laborers.
She arranged six arched, clear glass windows on each side of the sanctuary so that visitors would always see outside. She asked that the floors be made of native pine and the chandeliers of cast iron from Asheville. On the sanctuary’s back walls she hung two damask banners summing up Billy’s ministry and what she considered hers, the first quoting Jesus saying, “Go Ye Unto All the World” and the other, “Come Unto Me and I Will Give You Rest.”
A few hundred yards from those banners is the quiet, leafy spot where Ruth intends to be buried. Her desire might have remained just a preference communicated to a couple of her children had Ned Graham and Patricia Cornwell not acted. Cornwell happened to call Ned Graham in mid-November to ask how his mother was doing. She had felt close to Ruth from the time Cornwell was a child living a few miles down the mountain. In 1984, she wrote a biography of the woman whom she had come to consider as a second mother.
After learning from Ned about the Charlotte plans, Cornwell retrieved a letter, mailed to her several months earlier, asking for a sizable donation to the new library and signed by Billy Graham. She had been puzzled because Billy didn’t write fundraising letters. She decided to fly to Charlotte.
Board member Graeme Keith took her on a tour of the barn. She was impressed by the TV footage of Billy over the years. But a talking cow? “It truly is tacky,” she said.
She asked Keith about the mailing list. He told her that traditional donors were aging and that younger donors were needed. He also said the names of big donors would be inscribed on the concrete silo.
At one point, she asked Keith, “Are you going to have any memorabilia, like a suit or something people can touch?”
Keith leaned over, she said, and told her that Billy and Ruth were going to be buried on the property. The tour, he said, would end at the foot of their graves.
Cornwell recalled, “I asked, ‘How do Billy and Ruth feel about this?’ ”
Keith told her that Billy had agreed. And Ruth? Billy was working on her, Keith said.
Cornwell then visited Montreat to ask Ruth where she wanted to be buried. Ruth repeated her position. That’s when Ned Graham decided he needed to get the notarized statement, which his mother dictated. “My Final Wishes Concerning My Burial Site” says, in part:
“Since it is impossible for me to be buried at my ‘first home’ in China, my next choice is the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina which I have loved and where I have lived for the past 60 years. . . .” A number of years ago, the document continues, she and Bill “agreed that we would be buried together near the chapel at The Cove. The Memorial Garden at Chatlos Chapel was prepared for that very purpose.”
“Bill has recently talked to me about being buried at the Billy Graham Library/Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. However, I want to make it very clear that I am standing by our original agreement. My final wish is to be buried at the Cove. Under no circumstances am I to be buried in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
In an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, Keith said, “Ruth wants to be buried next to Billy, first and foremost.” When asked about her objections to Charlotte, he replied, “In her physical condition, she agrees with the last person who talked to her.”
Franklin knew where his mother wanted to be buried but until recently never talked to her about his plans, leaving that to his father.
It was not the first time he and his mother saw things differently. By his own admission, he was always a headstrong child. Once, Ruth, fed up with the teenage Franklin’s smoking, made him smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. He vomited a half-dozen times but never gave in. On another occasion, Ruth, angry at Franklin’s pinching his sisters in the car while on a trip to a fast-food restaurant, locked him in the trunk. When she opened it up, he asked for a cheeseburger without meat, French fries and a Coke.
He was sent to a Christian boarding school on Long Island, N.Y., then to a small college in Texas and in 1974, at 22, had a conversion experience in a hotel in Jerusalem. A month after that, he joined an international aid ministry that eventually became Samaritan’s Purse, and channeled some of his energy into piloting planes carrying food, medicine and the Gospel to places such as Rwanda, Haiti and recently New Orleans. With a budget of $264 million, Samaritan’s Purse is among the country’s 50 largest charities.
Ned, six years younger than Franklin and the baby of the family, was the quieter child. Named for his mother’s father, a surgical missionary in China, he says he was spoiled, and he wonders occasionally whether his siblings resent him for that.
That’s not to say that, on occasion, he didn’t give Ruth fits. “In my late teens, early 20s maybe, I’d be out late drinking, getting stoned. I’d come home at 2 or so and Mother would be up. She’d just kiss me and say, ‘Ned, I’m glad you’re home. Love ya, I’m going to bed now.’ ”
Now, he says, it’s his turn to take care of his mother. Two years ago, Christina assumed the daily operation of their East Gate Ministries, a Bible and training ministry in China, so that he could return to Montreat. He found his mother severely undernourished, he says, and his father’s health also deteriorating. He had the house adjusted to make it easier for his father to walk around, started his mother on a special diet and made sure she visited the beauty salon once a week.
As he heard reports this fall about the library from his sisters, one of whom compared it to a Cracker Barrel restaurant, he said, he grew concerned that it would belittle his father’s ministry. His brother dismissed his concerns. His sister Anne was sympathetic but unwilling to challenge Franklin openly, he continued. Anne’s own ministry, like Ned’s, receives funding from the BGEA.
“I’ve spent the last few years trying to help my parents preserve their mental acuity, independence and dignity,” he said over lunch in the spacious Cove dining room. “And I’m saddened that the family is not unified on this issue.”
He says he would like to see the library become more about Franklin and less about his father who, in his view, is already memorialized at the Cove. He is close enough to his dad to know that, as he puts it, “there never would have been a Billy Graham without a Ruth Graham.”
His parents are finally home together most days now. They eat supper watching old movies like “The Sound of Music” and listening to Ned or Christina read the Bible. Of late, Ned has chosen stories about decision-making and God’s solace in troubled times.
Billy Graham sits next to Ruth’s hospital bed for long periods, stroking her arms and her face.
Ned knows that his father hates conflict, which is one reason his dad has stayed away in recent years from the political battles of religious conservatives. But this is one dispute Billy Graham can’t avoid.
As Cornwell ends her short speech to Billy that November evening, Billy says, “I sure appreciate what you say, and I have no comment. I’ve heard all this before.”
Cornwell is not dissuaded.
“I tell you, if you’re buried there I’ll dig you up and move you here,” she says.
Ruth chuckles from her bed. “I’ll be one of the pallbearers,” she says.
At the sound of Ruth’s voice, Billy’s face softens toward Cornwell, as he says, “I’ll just think and pray about what you’ve said.”