Ruth Graham praised, mourned

Grandchildren of Billy and Ruth Graham load Ruth Graham's casket into a hearse after her funeral at the Montreat Conference Center on Saturday in Montreat, N.C.
Grandchildren of Billy and Ruth Graham load Ruth Graham's casket into a hearse after her funeral at the Montreat Conference Center on Saturday in Montreat, N.C.

MONTREAT, N.C. -- 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 loaded into 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.

Son Franklin Graham, a cigarette-smoking hellion during his teen years, delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the lengths his mother would go to 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.

Surprise speech

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.