A Family at Cross-Purposes

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By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

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.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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