Dignity for the dead

The story behind Billy Graham's casket and the Louisiana prison inmates who made it

Well-wishers walk past the casket of the Rev. Billy Graham on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 as he lies in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Well-wishers walk past the casket of the Rev. Billy Graham on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 as he lies in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C.-Their names are burned into the wood of Billy Graham's casket:

"Hand crafted by

"Richard Liggett

"Clifford Bowman"


In 1993, President Bill Clinton sports hunting gear from Cecil’s Campaign Camouflage in Stuttgart. Cecil’s can outfit any politician to look like a real hunter.

They built it inside a small prison wood-working shop, tucked away from the main complex of America's largest maximum-security penitentiary. The three men were inmates: Liggett and Bowman sentenced to life for murder, Krolowitz serving more than 30 years for armed robbery.

The prison is formally named Louisiana State Penitentiary but everyone calls it "Angola"-built on land that was a slave plantation, home to thousands of people who were forcibly taken from Angola, their birth country in Africa.

Angola, with its 18,000-acre footprint in the Lower Mississippi Delta, houses men who have committed the most violent of crimes.

Most of the more than 5,600 inmates will die behind bars-either serving a life sentence or by execution.

In many cases, inmates' families cannot afford to have their remains shipped or to pay for a funeral. For years, Angola buried these prisoners inside crate-like boxes, not much sturdier than cardboard.

Sometimes, the home-made coffins fell apart.

A new warden decided that wouldn't do.

Dignity for the dead

A decade before Graham's ministry reached Angola, the prison was considered one of the toughest, bloodiest jails in the country.

Burl Cain, a new warden hired in 1995, is credited with expanding Angola's education and work training programs. His "moral rehabilitation" philosophy called for inmates to work unless they were physically unable and to practice spirituality or religion.

Cain himself chose Jesus. But, being a state-run facility, Angola had to welcome all religions.

Steeples and interfaith chapels went up. Some inmates became Christian music DJs at Angola's radio station. Others attended seminary.


Craftsman Quiet Front-Wheel-Drive Lawn Mower

The prison started a hospice end-of-life program for inmates to care for the aging and dying among them.

Angola also has its own burial ceremony. Prison ministers, graduates of Angola's seminary, lead a prayer service. Family and friends from outside the prison are invited to attend. A prisoner's body is carried by a horse-drawn carriage hearse to Point Lookout cemetery. Angola has two cemeteries now-the original Point Lookout is full.

During one of these burials, early in Cain's tenure, he stood at the foot of a prisoner's grave.

He watched as inmates began to lower the coffin into the ground. But the box, with the man's body inside, fell apart, remembers Gary Young, assistant warden at Angola who has worked at the prison for nearly 30 years.

Young said Cain believed that prisoners who died at Angola had paid their debt to society and deserved a dignified funeral service and proper burial.

Cain started a casket-building program at the prison-and he turned to an inmate known as "Grasshopper" to design a reliable casket.


Murder and life in prison

Richard Lee "Grasshopper" Liggett, the oldest of four children, grew up in Newton, Kansas, a small city about 25 miles north of Wichita.

He had a knack for mischief and occasionally ran away from home, said his brother John Liggett.

But, John said, mostly they lived a quiet life. The brothers would go to the dairy farm where their stepfather worked and help round up cows and wash milk bottles. At home, they counted train cars as they passed on a track near their house.

Before his time in prison, Richard Liggett wasn't a religious person, John Liggett said. Discussion of God or religion "just wasn't our thing," he said.

When John Liggett turned 17, he joined the Army and left Kansas. That same year, he'd later learn, his brother was charged with murder and kidnapping.

In 1971, 19-year-old Richard Liggett 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.

There, he learned carpentry and leather-working, Liggett's brother told the Observer. In prison Richard picked up the nickname "Grasshopper"-he was so skinny, he could hide in the grass-and became a master carpenter in Angola's woodworking shop.

Building a casket took about three days. That's what Liggett was doing in 2005 when Franklin Graham came to Angola.


A simple casket

The Graham family has donated more than $200,000 to help build chapels and support prison ministry at Angola.

When Cain opened the prison gates to preachers like Franklin Graham, the change among prisoners was evident, says Young. "Moral rehabilitation," he said, is as much as about changing hearts for the good as it is teaching an Angola inmate a trade.

The prison wanted to host Billy Graham but by the early 2000s, the evangelist was unable to make the trip. His son Franklin, though, visited several times. So did his daughter Ruth.

A tour of Angola in 2005 took Franklin Graham to the woodworking shop, where he was moved by the simple dignity of the caskets and the inmates' care in building them.

According to Young, who was on the tour that day, Franklin said his father was a "simple man with a simple message," and would want to be laid to rest in a simple casket.

Franklin Graham asked Cain to have Angola carpenters make a casket for his mother, Ruth Bell Graham, and his father, and to burn the builders' names into the wood. The cost: $215 each. He declined Cain's offer to use a higher-grade wood for the Grahams.

Ruth Bell Graham died in June 2007 and was buried in one of the Angola caskets.

Richard Liggett didn't get to see the family receive the casket he'd built for her, or to see her funeral-he died three months earlier from lung and liver cancer.

Prison officials shipped Liggett's body to his family in Kansas. They sent with him a casket-one of the last ones Liggett had built before he was too sick to work in the shop.

John Liggett believes his brother's heart was changed at Angola because he went to church and heard a tale of redemption.

In a box of papers, discovered at their mother's house after Richard Liggett died, his brother found dozens of certificates from Angola. The papers show Liggett was active in church, studied the Bible and shared his religious views with other inmates.

"My brother," he said, "was probably saved by Billy Graham."


'The love of God'

As Liggett's health declined in 2005 and 2006, other inmates were brought in to help build the caskets. At least four other inmates, whose names aren't on Billy Graham's casket, had a hand in building it, said Young, the assistant warden.

David Bacon, convicted of murder in 1988 and sent to Angola to serve a life sentence, was one of them.

Bacon told the Observer he grew up estranged from his stepfather and mother. He didn't know his biological father until he was 12.

"This comes from hindsight: I was looking for love, guidance, acceptance, approval," Bacon said. "When you're young, you'll do anything to get it. I couldn't get that from my father."

Instead, Bacon filled his life with drugs and alcohol, he said. By age 24, he had no job and his wife had left him, taking their two young daughters.

In 1988, Bacon and his stepfather killed a man in Baton Rouge, according to court documents.

At Angola, he entered substance abuse counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous. He earned his GED, took public speaking courses and participated in anger management classes.

Prison was the unlikely place he found faith, Bacon said.

"I had never really had a relationship with God or Jesus," Bacon said. "But after a few years at Angola, I began to soul-search and make those changes."

In Billy Graham's preaching, Bacon heard a message of redemption, he said, and his newfound faith filled a hole in his heart he had barely realized was there.

Graham's teachings, Bacon said, showed him God wasn't looking down at him inside Angola with judgment.

"They showed us the love of God," Bacon said. "Nobody is beyond redemption. I've been redeemed."

Bacon was awarded clemency and released from Angola in December 2016. He lives in Mississippi and says he's established relationships with his brother, his two daughters-now 34 and 31-and four grandchildren. He has a job remodeling homes and says he's been thinking about trying to build caskets again.

On Wednesday, he watched television coverage of Graham lying in honor in the U.S. Capitol.

Bacon remembers the smoothness of the cabinet-grade plywood and the smell of the wood stain as he helped build Billy Graham's casket.

"It was," he says, "a great honor and a privilege."


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