Billy Graham preached to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries. He met with at least a dozen presidents and heads of state. Graham appeared in the top ten of Gallup’s most-admired men in the world 61 times, far more than any other person. Ronald Reagan is his closest competition, making the list 31 times. So why is the celebrated Graham going to be buried in a plywood casket built by prisoners in Louisiana? The answer helps us understand a key facet of the man’s character.
In addition to having an effect on presidents, and millions of everyday people across the world, the Graham family also had a big effect on those the Bible says should not be overlooked: prisoners. The Graham family has been connected to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola, a maximum-security prison once known as the bloodiest prison in America. Most of the prisoners at Angola are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—meaning they will eventually die and be buried in the Angola prison cemetery.
Franklin Graham preached at Angola, and George Beverly Shea sang there. In fact, Shea sang to more than 800 prisoners at Angola in 2009. He was there to perform and to give to the prison an organ he had received from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association earlier that year for his 100th birthday. The Graham family would donate funds to help build a couple of chapels at Angola.
Graham died last Wednesday at 99 years old, and despite his fame and profound global influence, this humble religious leader will be buried in a simple plywood box built by an unlikely person. Richard Liggett, a convicted murderer, led a team of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that built caskets for both Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in June 2007 at age 87.
Liggett meticulously built coffins for many fellow prisoners before dying of cancer in March 2007, nearly 31 years into his sentence. Liggett would tell then-Warden Burl Cain that of everything that ever happened in his life, the most profound thing was to build the coffins for Billy and Ruth Graham. Franklin Graham purchased the coffins after seeing them during a visit to the prison in 2005.
The plain wood coffins are made of plywood and were lined with mattress pads made from Walmart comforters covered by fabric. They are adorned with brass handles and a cross on top and are said to cost $215. According to the former warden of Angola, the Graham family also asked that all of the inmates who worked on the coffins’ construction have their names burned into the wood.
I have a particular interest in Angola, because I led a Baylor University research team in completing a rigorous five-year study of the infamous prison and the Angola Bible College that has attracted so much attention from Christian and correctional leaders over the last the two decades. The Bible College, founded in 1995, and the 29 inmate-led congregations at Angola, have played a critical role in transforming one of the most violent and corrupt prisons in America into one that has become an unlikely model for other states. At least a dozen other states have launched Bible colleges as a result of the Angola experiment.
Graham received many honors during his lifetime, including the Templeton Prize in 1982. At the award ceremony, Sir Geoffrey Howe introduced Graham and stated, “It is with the Bible that he has armed himself above all else. His characteristic refrain, ‘The Bible says . . .’ exposes both the foundation of his preaching and the explanation for his extraordinary combination of humility and authority.” The former British Cabinet member’s observations were spot on. Graham’s Angola casket is a fitting reminder of the evangelist’s connection with some of America’s most forgotten people.(THIS HAS BEEN REPOSTED FROM THE GOSPEL COALITION)Courtesy-Images)
La. Prisoner Built Graham's Coffin
By BECKY BOHRER
The Associated Press
Sunday, June 17, 2007; 7:34 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- Shortly before he died, convicted murderer Richard Liggett was asked to make two of the simple plywood coffins he meticulously crafted for fellow prisoners. Except the caskets would be for Billy and Ruth Graham.
"Humbled? He was honored, he was honored," said Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. "He told me, of everything that ever happened in his life, the most profound thing was to build this coffin for Billy Graham and his family."
Graham's son Franklin made the request after seeing the coffins on a visit to the Angola prison and being struck by their simplicity, according to a statement from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Ruth Graham was to be buried in one Sunday at a private ceremony at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. She died Thursday at age 87 after a lengthy illness.
"I wish you could look in that casket because she's so beautiful," Billy Graham told mourners who gathered Saturday to remember his beloved wife. "She was a wonderful woman."
The coffins are made of birch plywood and lined with a foam mattress pad covered with fabric. Brass handles are on the sides, while a cross adorns the top. The price: $215 each.
Liggett, who was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, led a team of prisoners who built the coffins for the Graham family. He had found God in prison, Cain said.
"You would never think he'd be a prisoner. He wasn't all marked up," Cain said. "He just did a terrible thing, one time in New Orleans."
The prison has a Bible college and chapel near death row funded largely by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse.
Cain said many of its 5,108 prisoners are Christian and were spending the weekend "preaching and praying and remembering the Graham family."
But Liggett won't be among them: He died of cancer in March, nearly 31 years into his sentence. He was buried in one of the last coffins he built, Cain said.