Billy Graham is passing away. Too bad. And what will his son Franklin do with Billy’s body? Lenin’s Tomb anyone?
When I met Billy over the years, (he used to visit my parent’s home, and he and I met at various Evangelical conferences before I escaped the evangelical world) he seemed like a nice guy.
As the years passed, his son Franklin Graham ( I met him at my kitchen table when we were both 9), seemed to exert quite an influence over his parents. He certainly figured out how to make money off them– in his mother’s case literally off her dead body. (No kidding!)
Take the Graham family dispute over where Billy and his wife Ruth were to be buried (reported in the Washington Post in 2006) and by one of Billy Grahams’ daughter to me.
Franklin, the 61-year-old “heir” to his father’s ministry, insisted that the burial spot be at the $28–$30 million, 40,000-square-foot “museum” near the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters. Other family members—including Ruth Graham—wanted to have a quieter final resting place. After Ruth’s death, Billy was torn over what to do with her remains.
The Post reported that Ruth had signed a notarized document with six witnesses, saying she wanted to be buried near her home. After her death her wishes were ignored, and Billy did what Franklin wanted: Ruth was laid to “rest” in what amounts to an amusement park for the greater glory of—what?
Consultants had worked with the Walt Disney Company to create a large “barn” and “silo” as a reminder of Billy Graham’s early childhood on a dairy farm near Charlotte. Today, visitors wishing to visit Ruth’s tomb pass through a 40-foot-tall glass entry cut in the shape of a cross and are greeted by a mechanical talking cow. From there, they walk on paths of straw through rooms of exhibits. At the end, a stone walkway shaped like a cross takes them to a garden where Ruth lies (as will Billy Graham when he dies).
Here’s a part of the long story in the Post:
A Family at Cross-Purposes
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.
Franklin, who pays himself $640,000 out of money raised to help the poor, (perks not included) basically told his mother to get lost. He buried her where there was a buck to be made. Franklin isn’t shy about the dollars in the Graham tomb/reliquary/cult he’s trying to perpetuate that he’s building.
Maybe that’s why I call the deluded hero of my book And God Said, “Billy!“ Billy Graham. The book explores the roots of American religious delusion that Billy helped perpetuate in a nice way that is now being used for naked profit. The book offers another way to approach true spirituality.
My version of Billy in the book is a literal “fool for Christ” and not in a good way. He’s my window into the utter corruption and intellectual bankruptcy of the evangelical movement, that is led by the likes of Franklin, Sarah Palin and the rest and/or people eager to cover up just how nuts they’ve become!
So the question is: will any of the evangelical establishment who are about to tell us how great Graham was (again and again and again, at what will amount to a state funeral) be honest enough to admit that there’s something sort of sick about turning your dad’s body into a relic? I thought Protestants didn’t do the venerate-the-dead-saint-thing?
A relic for Wheaton College? Or Billy’s final resting place in the editorial offices of Christianity Today magazine perhaps?
I’m wondering just how big the Graham death/funeral/hoopla will be? Maybe Franklin will sell off old wardrobe items as holy relics? How about the next twenty covers of Christianity Today magazine being dedicated to healing experienced at the Ruth/Billy Tomb? A mound of crutches and wheelchairs at the BGA head office? Billy’s hair sold a strand at a time…?
Perhaps a glass coffin is in order so that we can check to see if Billy decomposes or not, and if he doesn’t will that prove he’s a saint?
One last thing: of course I’ll get all sorts of crap for writing this. For once, if you’re offended by the truth, don’t blame the messenger, how about taking a hard look at what evangelicalism has become in America instead?
Follow Frank Schaeffer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/frank_schaeffer
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book — And God Said, “Billy!“ exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback.