Subscribe for 33¢ / day

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Rev. Billy Graham's funeral began Friday with a rousing song and heartfelt words in the culmination of more than a week of tributes to "America's Pastor."

The noon service commenced with the evangelist's family bringing in his casket before an invitation-only crowd of about 2,000. It was followed by a rendition of the gospel song "Until Then," and a welcome message from one of Graham's confidants. The 90-minute funeral was scheduled to also include remarks from Graham's five adult children and pastors from the South and around the world.

"Mr. Graham had a profound and deeply spiritual conviction concerning the Word of God, the Bible. He loved the Bible. It governed how he lived, and it governed how he died," said the Rev. Donald Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg South Carolina, who visited Graham frequently in his final years.

Linda McCrary-Fisher's performance of "Until Then" included the poignant lyric, "my heart will go on singing ... until the day God calls me home."

The congregation includes President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their wives. The service is being streamed live online.

Neither Pence nor Trump is scheduled to speak during the service, but they met privately with the family beforehand.

The Rev. Franklin Graham will deliver the main funeral address for his father after shorter messages from Billy Graham's three daughters and younger son.

The funeral planning began a decade ago with Billy Graham himself, and it also reflects his family's desire to capture the feeling of the crusades that made him the world's best-known Protestant preacher of his era.

"His fingerprints are on this service for sure," family spokesman Mark DeMoss said in a phone interview. "The Graham family has long considered that his funeral eventually would really be his last crusade."

Graham, who died last week at age 99, brought a message of salvation to millions during visits and live broadcasts to scores of countries.

The service features songs from gospel musicians who performed at Graham's events: McCrary-Fisher, Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band. They are all friends who sang for Graham at his home in recent years, DeMoss said.

Other notable guests are expected to include North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. His immediate predecessor, Pat McCrory, was already in the tent hours before the service and doing commentary for a radio station.

Graham will be buried next to his wife in a memorial prayer garden at the library, with his grandchildren serving as pallbearers. His pine plywood casket was made by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The grave marker reads: "Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Earlier, crowds lined the road for a procession from Graham's home in the mountains to Charlotte, where Graham grew up. Approximately 13,000 people — including former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — filed past his casket during a public viewing in Charlotte this week. And on Wednesday, Graham became the first private citizen since civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington.


Drew reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.


Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


The AP is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers.