Nation & World

Billy Graham's coffin was built by a prison inmate named 'Grasshopper.' Here's why.

The handiwork of a prison inmate named "Grasshopper" will be seen by the world in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. today.

Evangelist Billy Graham will lie in honor at the nation's capital inside a pine casket made by Richard "Grasshopper” Liggett, who is from Kansas, and other prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., known as the "Alcatraz of the South."

Graham died at the age of 99 last week.

At the Graham family's request, the prisoners' names are wood-burned onto the casket, according to the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

It is a simple bed of repose. Made of pine plywood, a mattress pad lines the inside. On top, the prisoners nailed a wooden cross.

Franklin Graham, Billy's son and a preacher like his father, saw the caskets in 2005 during a visit to the prison and was struck by the simple boxes constructed of treated plywood and lined with bedding from Walmart, according to Catholic News Service.

"He told me, 'This is one my Dad would want to be buried in. It’s so plain, but it’s built by prisoners. We’ve got to have these,'" the prison's former long-time warden, Burl Cain, told CNS.

Graham ordered six coffins. His mother, Ruth, was buried in one in 2007.

“This was a great honor," Cain told WAFB in Baton Rouge at the time. "Because this is a great man of God and he wants him an inmate to build his coffin and get the inmate preachers involved and it's mind-boggling. It sends a great message."

Cain is the man who started the prison's casket-making program.

In 1995, in his first year at the helm of the maximum-security prison, he watched as a group of prisoners lowered the casket of fellow inmate Joseph Siegel into the ground of the prison cemetery, CNS reports.

One of the poorer inmates, Siegel was buried inside a cardboard box, and as the casket was lowered, his body fell out the bottom. When the pallbearers began shoveling the dirt into the grave, the top of the box collapsed.

Knowing that most of Angola's inmates die in prison, Cain came up with a plan for more dignified send-offs.

"I told them, ‘Men, you’re going to die here, and we’ve got to do this with dignity,'" he told CNS. "'Y’all are going to build a coffin, and it’s going to be a nice coffin. When you die, you’ve served your sentence, and there’s no reason for anybody to kick your body.'"

The prisoners pray over the caskets as they build them and there were many prayers said over Graham's.

“I respect the man. I've listened to him. I know what he preaches. You know, but other than that, I just wanted to do the best job I could,” Liggett, now deceased, told WAFB as he worked on Graham's casket more than a decade ago.

One of Liggett's crime was committed in his home state.

In 1971, 19-year-old Liggett, who grew up in Newton, and another man were planning to rob a family late one Friday night, according to a news story from the Wichita Eagle. When they arrived on the family’s farm, police told the newspaper, Liggett and 29-year-old Dwight Kafka killed a man, then held five members of the family hostage while trying to hide the man’s body.

Both men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Liggett served the first three years of his sentence at Kansas’ Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Then he was transferred to Angola, where he became a master carpenter in its woodworking shop.

Cain said the building of this particular casket was a "reverent operation."

“They would pray before they started every day and ask that God would anoint their work, because this was a very serious thing,” he told CNS. "Billy Graham was a human — he wasn’t God — but he was one of the godliest humans on the earth. They took it very seriously."

The Graham family did not request any special upgrades except for a few modifications needed to make the casket easier to transport from one location to the next — from North Carolina to Washington and then back for a private funeral service Friday in Charlotte.

Graham will be buried next to his wife in the Prayer Garden at the Billy Graham Library, according to the Graham website.

Franklin Graham returned to Angola in 2008 to dedicate a privately funded chapel built by the prisoners. During the service that day, prison chaplain Jim Rentz told a story about Grasshopper.

“I want to tell you what Grasshopper said when he made Billy’s Graham’s casket," Rentz said. "He said, ‘Billy Graham is a simple man who preached a simple message. He must be buried in a simple casket.'"

The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story.

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