Thousands from around the world gather for Rev. Graham's 'last crusade'

Thousands from around the world gather for Rev. Graham's 'last crusade'

A casket carrying the body of Rev. Billy Graham is carried to his funeral service at the Billy Graham Library on March 2, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mourners are gathering to pay their respects to the Rev. Billy Graham at a funeral that marks the culmination of more than a week of tributes to "America's Pastor."

Final preparations are finishing up as Graham will be laid to rest Friday afternoon at his childhood home on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library.

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Thousands of guests from around the world will say their final goodbyes to an icon dedicated to spreading the Gospel.

Plans for Friday's service took shape in the years after his last crusade in 2005 as he huddled with confidants and loved ones in his North Carolina mountain home. Musicians who had shared Graham's stage would sing. Some of the best preachers Graham knew - his own children - would deliver personal messages.

And evoking the "Canvas Cathedral" revivals that helped launch his ministry seven decades ago, mourners would gather under a tent to pay their final respects. For his family, the idea became capturing the feeling of the crusades that made Graham "America's Pastor" and the world's best-known Protestant preacher of his era.

The service is scheduled to start at noon Friday. The Rev. Franklin Graham will deliver the main funeral address for his father after personal messages from Billy Graham's three daughters and younger son. It is expected to last about 90 minutes, and also include prayers by pastors from as close as Charlotte and as far away as Asia.

Message of condolence from Pope Francis regarding Billy Graham:

His Holiness Pope Francis was saddened to learn of the death of the Reverend Billy Graham, and he offers heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and loved ones. Mindful of his long and dedicated service to the Gospel, His Holiness commends Reverend Graham's soul to the merciful love of Almighty God. Upon all who mourn his passing in the sure hope of the resurrection, Pope Francis invokes the divine blessings of peace and consolation in the Lord Jesus.

-Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State

A Graham family spokesman said family members consider the service to be Graham's last crusade. More than 2,000 guests were invited to the private funeral.

A spokesman said at least 100 guests will be traveling from at least 50 other countries.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will attend the funeral and will be escorted by Graham’s grandson, a Major in the United States Army.

Graham’s headstone will read: “Preacher of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."

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

Crews closed the Billy Graham Parkway on Thursday night ahead of the funeral. Both directions of the parkway are shut down between South Tryon Street and Tyvola Road. The closure will last through Friday afternoon.

Those trying to get to the airport during that time will need to use Interstate 85 or Interstate 485 to get to Josh Birmingham Parkway.

The Billy Graham Library and Graham’s gravesite will be closed to the public until Wednesday.

Graham, who died last week at age 99, brought a message of salvation to millions during visits and live broadcasts to scores of countries. While the invitation-only crowd Friday on the grounds of his Charlotte library is limited to 2,000 or so, internet livestreams are allowing many more to watch.

The service features songs from gospel musicians who performed at Graham's events: Linda 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.

Afterward, Billy Graham will be buried next to his wife in a memorial prayer garden at the library, with his grandchildren serving as pallbearers. His casket was made of pine by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The funeral serves as the culmination of more than a week of tributes that included crowds lining the road for a procession from his 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.

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. After the honor, his body returned to Charlotte for the final time Thursday.

The final homecoming was a simple and personal one. Only the sound of rain broke the silence of the pallbearers, six of Graham's grandsons, who guided his simple wooden coffin out of the hearse and began the slow walk toward the Billy Graham Library where it will remain until Friday's funeral.

Graham's casket was marched out of the U.S. Capitol by an honor guard representing all branches of the military on a rainy Thursday morning, as his earthly body left the Rotunda, where he lay in honor on Wednesday.

North Carolina representatives and senators said their final farewells and also presented the family with the flag that flew over the Capitol while Graham 's body was there.

Still, loved ones said Graham saw himself as a humble preacher who would have been embarrassed by such fanfare.

And most of all, to Graham, Friday's goodbye marks an end only to his earthly journey.

"Do I fear death? ... No. I look forward to death, with great anticipation," Graham told a Newsweek reporter in 2005. "I am looking forward to seeing God face to face. And that could happen any day."