Burl Cain is not used to crying.
But as the Prison Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola), Cain took in the funeral of George Beverly Shea, who rested in the casket his inmates had made, and he could not stop the tears from flowing.
“I thought it was the most incredible funeral,” Cain said. “It was just a great celebration of someone’s life.”
It was a surreal week for Cain, who had the opportunity to visit Mr. Shea just two days before his passing — exactly a week before he sat in the gorgeous Anderson Auditorium pew, the stone floor beneath his feet.
They spent two hours together — Cain, Bev Shea and his wife Karlene — mostly laughing, telling stories, and of course, drinking coffee, one of Mr. Shea’s passions.
None of them knowing it would be their last visit.
“We had a great conversation,” said Cain, one of the Mr. Shea’s last visitors. “We ate some cookies and just had a good ol’ time.”
At one point, Cain told Mr. Shea, “I don’t think I’ve met anyone 104 years old.”
Bev Shea’s quickly responded: “Well, I haven’t met anyone 104 either.”
He thought for a second and delivered the next line with perfect timing.
“I haven’t met anyone 103.”
Cain left blessed, not knowing Mr. Shea would soon pass away.
“He was brilliant,” Cain said. “He was so witty and had such a great sense of humor. You would have thought he was 20.”
Mr. Shea was buried April 22 at the Billy Graham Library in the Angola casket, just like the one Ruth Bell Graham was buried in back in 2007.
Franklin Graham, who had visited Angola, La., during one of his Festival outreaches, had noticed the high-quality caskets the prisoners had made and asked if they would consider making some for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“We have a coffin shop in the penitentiary,” said Cain, who added the shop idea began after one of the inmate’s cardboard coffins fell apart during a ceremony. “This is a life-sentence prison. Life means life. But when you die, you’ve served the sentence, so why shouldn’t you have a good casket?”
Cain said six inmates worked on the caskets built for the BGEA, and Angola donated the labor costs. The caskets are made from plywood with a cross on top.
“(The Grahams) have a heart for prison ministry and prisoners,” Cain said. “Some of the poorest people made the coffin, but (Franklin Graham) honored them by letting them build the coffins. We were very honored to do it.”
So honored that Cain made the trip to Mr. Shea’s funeral in Montreat, N.C., to pay tribute to the man who was the soloist for the Billy Graham Crusades for six decades.
“I came to the funeral because we really have a special place in our heart for Bev Shea, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Franklin,” Cain said.
One of Cain’s favorite memories was the time when a 100-year-old Shea came to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to sing to the Angola inmates.
“He sang some of his favorite songs for about 45 minutes,” Cain said. “It was standing room only.”
Mr. Shea came to Angola to deliver in person his newest Rodgers organ — one Franklin Graham had gifted to him for his 100th birthday — to the Angola prison. It was given to Mr. Shea with the understanding that after he passed, the organ would be gifted to Angola.
Mr. Shea was quoted in 2009 not wanting to wait until his death to give Angola the organ, as he would be robbed the joy of giving it away: “Every night, on my pillow, I would think about it.”