Graham's wife in coma, close to death; both will be buried at library

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is shown above. The library was dedicated on May 31.
The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is shown above. The library was dedicated on May 31.

CHARLOTTE -- Evangelist Billy Graham made public Wednesday a decision he and wife Ruth had been keeping secret since "earlier this spring": The couple will be buried on the grounds of the recently dedicated Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

Graham's e-mailed announcement came amid news that the long-ailing Ruth Bell Graham, who contracted pneumonia two weeks ago, had slipped into a coma Wednesday morning.

"She is close to going home to heaven," her husband of almost 64 years said.

Four of their five children were at her bedside Wednesday in the Grahams' home in Montreat, said Graham spokesman Larry Ross. The fifth child, son Ned, was expected to arrive Wednesday night from Tacoma, Wash., where he lives.

She was being treated at home "in line with her wishes," Ross said.

Charlotte's Jean Ford, Billy Graham's only surviving sibling, called the scene at the Grahams' Montreat "very peaceful."

"There was a very large aquarium in her room, with fish just swimming all around," said Ford, who visited the Grahams on Wednesday with husband Leighton Ford, an evangelist and former associate of Graham's, and their daughter. "They had music, too -- hymns playing in the background."

Though Ford said Ruth seemed "almost awake" at times while they spoke and prayed, "I think heaven is near."

Ford said her brother Billy is holding up well, and kept saying about his wife: "There's never been a woman like her, and there never will be."

"He has written memories of her and said he would be sending me those, "Ford reported. "And he did say, 'I believe she has one foot in heaven.' "

Ruth Graham, who met Billy Graham when both were students at Wheaton College, a Christian school, turned 87 last Sunday.

In the statement released Wednesday, Graham called his wife "my soul mate and best friend."

He also revealed the decision about their final resting place:

"Earlier this spring, after much prayer and discussion, Ruth and I made the decision to be buried beside each other at the Billy Graham Library in my hometown. We have held this decision privately and only decided to announce it now that she is close to going home to heaven."

The Grahams' decision to be buried in Charlotte instead of in The Cove near Asheville was something of a surprise.

In an unusually intimate article last December, The Washington Post reported that the burial issue had divided the Graham family and that Ruth said she wanted to be buried amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, her home for many years, rather than in Charlotte.

The newspaper even quoted a notarized statement that had Ruth Graham saying she and her husband had agreed to be buried near the chapel at The Cove, also known as the Billy Graham Training Center.

"Bill has recently asked me about being buried at the Billy Graham Library/Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina," the statement said. "However, I want to make it very clear my final wish is to be buried at the Cove. Under no circumstances am I to be buried in Charlotte."

According to the article, those wishes were supported by son Ned and daughter Anne Graham Lotz, an evangelist in Raleigh. Son Franklin, an evangelist who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and was the main force behind the Charlotte library, was cast as a supporter of the Charlotte burial site.

But after the Post article appeared, Billy Graham released a statement saying that he and his wife -- not their grown children or anyone else -- would decide on their final resting place.

That was the last word until Wednesday's announcement. There was no further explanation of his wife's apparent change of heart.

Ruth Graham, who suffers from osteoarthritis of the back and neck, has been bedridden for the past six months or so. She was too ill to attend the May 31 dedication of the $27 million Billy Graham Library, which drew the 88-year-old Graham and 1,500 invited guests -- including former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Graham, the presidents and other speakers saluted Ruth Graham, who her husband once said knew the Bible better than he did.

"I want to honor her and tell you how much I love her," Graham said during his speech at the dedication. "More than me, she deserves to be here today."

In his statement Wednesday, Graham, who is also frail from various illnesses, alluded to the major role she's played in his international ministry and in raising their children.

"I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side," he said. "I am more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College."

He also thanked members of his worldwide flock who have been praying for the couple as they grapple with old age.

"Ruth and I appreciate, more than we can express, the prayers and letters of encouragement we have received from people across the country and around the world," he said. "Our entire family has been home in recent days and it has meant so much to have them at our side during this time."