MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) — Ruth Graham retained her beauty even in death and surely "had a great reception in heaven," an ailing Billy Graham told a packed auditorium of mourners who gathered yesterday to remember his beloved wife.
"I wish you could look in that casket because she's so beautiful," said Mr. Graham, clinging to his walker. "She was a wonderful woman."
Mrs. Graham died Thursday at age 87 after a lengthy illness. Her husband's closest confidant, she was remembered as a spiritual stalwart and modest mentor who provided a solid foundation for her globe-trotting husband.
"The mama that we saw at home was the mama that the world saw," said her son Franklin, who is now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Billy Graham, who is 88 and is largely confined to the couple's home in Montreat by several ailments, wasn't expected to speak at the service. But the world's most renowned evangelist, who preached to more than 210 million people during his six-decade career, surprised the crowd with his words, perhaps spurred by the sight of his 19 grandchildren.
"God bless all these grandchildren. Some of them I haven't seen in a long time. Some of them I've never seen," he said, drawing laughter from the audience. "Lots of love to everyone, and thank you."
He wiped away a tear before leaving the auditorium. Family spokesman Larry Ross said later that "the sense of loss is beginning to settle in on him." Family members will hold a private burial ceremony today at the new Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
Born in 1920 to medical missionaries in China, and after spending some of her high school years in what is now North Korea, Mrs. Graham vowed to never marry and dreamed of working as a missionary in Tibet.
That changed when she met Mr. Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois. They were married in 1943 at Montreat Presbyterian Church, the same church she attended for the rest of her life.
As Mr. Graham took his crusades and traveling ministry across the country and the world, his wife usually remained in the small North Carolina mountain town of Montreat, raising their five children while writing poetry and books and counseling college-age people.
George Beverly Shea, who led the music at Mr. Graham's crusades for several decades, performed at the memorial, singing "In Tenderness He Sought Me" — a favorite of Mrs. Graham that he sang at her bedside soon before her death.
Mrs. Graham was bedridden for months with degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck, and slipped into a coma Wednesday after a bout with pneumonia. A spokesman said she died peacefully with her husband and all five of her children at her bedside.
"Though our hearts are heavy with loss, we dare rejoice, for Ruth is home with You," said the Rev. Richard White, Mrs. Graham's pastor at Montreat Presbyterian. "Her sorrows are ended."
Before the service, a few mourners watched a procession that brought Mrs. Graham's casket from Asheville to Montreat for the memorial. Ruth Gleeson, 56, praised Mrs. Graham as a "partner rather than a shadow of Billy Graham."
"There is so much scandal in religion — particularly in the evangelical realm," she said. "For her, it was never about the ego. It was always about God. That's really a rarity, and we have to honor that."