This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s June 12 World Fame Issue. Subscribe today!
A week before her husband dies, Lonnie Ali changes the plans for his funeral. The funeral she had envisioned is too big, she thinks. It is too complicated. At her annual meeting with the man who has been doing most of the planning, she says, “Sit down. I have to talk to you about something.”
She is making changes because she believes she has time to make them. Her husband is not even sick. And besides … he’s Muhammad Ali. She began working on the plan a decade earlier in response to counsel, and she’s come to regard it as part of his routine upkeep, not so different from helping him with his meds. There are just some things you have to do, she says. She is not planning his funeral because she thinks he is going to die but because she has known him since she was a small child — and a part of her thinks he is going to live forever.
Her meeting with the man planning her husband’s funeral, Bob Gunnell, takes place right before Memorial Day weekend in 2016. When he goes back to the office on Tuesday, May 31, he tells members of his staff that they’re going to have to scrap a good part of the plan they’ve so painstakingly crafted. Then, after work, he gets a call from Lonnie. “Bob,” she says, “I just want to make you aware that Muhammad has got a little cold. It’s nothing to worry about, but as a precaution I’m going to take him to the hospital to get checked out.”
Ali’s body at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery faces Mecca, but with his grave dug on a hill, he also faces the sunrise. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
The sound Muhammad Ali hears as he dies is the sound that babies hear right after they’re born. It is just after 8:30 p.m. MT on June 3, 2016, a Friday. He is in Room 263, in the intensive care unit of the HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center, near his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He has been disconnected from the ventilator that has been keeping him strenuously alive, and the imam at his bedside has begun the call to prayer, as if ushering a newborn into the world.
The imam, whose name is Zaid Shakir, does not know why he has sung the familiar keening song; it is traditional to sing to those who are close to their first breath but not to those close to their last. But he has flown into Arizona from California, and he reached Ali’s room not long before what he calls “the paraphernalia of life support” was removed. Lonnie Ali is there. Ali’s nine children are there, along with many of his grandchildren, and after reciting supplications and reading from the Quran with them, Shakir suddenly finds himself in the grip of spontaneous necessity. He has been watching the pulse in Ali’s neck, watching it surge with life after he started breathing on his own and then watching it slowly ebb, and now he leans over and with his mouth close to Ali’s right ear, he sings, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Shakir is tall and thin, nearly spindly, with a crooked smile and a beautiful voice, a voice that even when he’s speaking carries a hint of a jazz, a way of hanging behind the beat before finding all the right notes. He does not whisper to Ali. He does not sing softly. He sings out loud, so that everyone can hear, so that the words will fill Ali’s consciousness. Then he places in Ali’s right hand a string of prayer beads offered by one of his grandsons and closes Ali’s fingers around it. He begins talking to Ali, entreating him, exhorting him, telling him, “Muhammad Ali, this is what it means, God is one; say it, repeat it, you’ve inspired so many, paradise is waiting — “
When Shakir begins the call, Ali is alive. When he finishes, a doctor comes in, presses his stethoscope against Ali’s chest and gently closes Ali’s eyes. He lived for approximately 35 minutes after the disconnection of the ventilator, but now, at 9:10, Muhammad Ali, 74 years old, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world from Louisville, Kentucky, is pronounced dead, of septic shock.
Lonnie asks Imam Shakir to stay with her husband while the family files out of Room 263 and enters a new and diminished world — the world without Muhammad Ali in it. He does for a while, but the room begins to give way to professionals. There are nurses and hospital staff. There are two funeral directors who were literally hidden in another room when Ali was dying and now emerge from the shadows. And there are three men who wear hastily packed suits and faces of seen-it-all vigilance but who have never seen what they’re seeing now. Their names are Todd Kessinger, Brian Roggenkamp and Jon Lesher. They’re off-duty homicide detectives from the Louisville Metro Police Department, and they flew to Phoenix the day before on a private jet to provide security for the Ali family. They’re no strangers to death, horrible and unnatural. They’ve been around bodies in every possible condition. But the body in the bed is the body of Muhammad Ali. He is covered, at first; then, after the nurses have removed the tubes and disconnected the monitors that sustained him, uncovered. It is their job to secure the room against intrusion, and Ali against exploitation — they’ve heard rumors that a tabloid television show is offering a $200,000 bounty for the first photos of The Greatest on his deathbed. But now they wonder how easily a photograph of the gaunt and balding man on the bed could be recognized. They feel tremendously solicitous toward him yet also somehow ennobled, as if they have come into the presence of a force larger and stronger than themselves. It is not fame, exactly; it is history, and Lesher keeps thinking that no matter what happens to him in the course of his life, no one will ever be able to take this moment away from him. So many people had encounters with Ali when he was alive: chance meetings that became, by the force of Ali’s personality, indelibly personal, the stuff of stories told and retold. Lesher never did; neither did Kessinger or Roggenkamp. They encounter Ali dead, yet even with his life fled, his power persists, as if it’s part of the atmosphere around his body. They are in the room with Muhammad Ali for 45 minutes. They have responsibility for Muhammad Ali for 45 minutes, until Roggenkamp departs to drive Lonnie Ali home. But there is a problem as they go to leave; Ali was not admitted as Muhammad Ali. He was admitted under an alias, confusing one of the funeral home directors. Finally, Kessinger says, “Look, it’s Muhammad Ali. Let’s just go.”
Imam Zaid Shakir spoke the last words Ali heard on his deathbed. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
When Lonnie goes home, she goes to a home absent of Ali. It is the singular advantage of living with an immobilized man — he is always there. Now he is not. She was his caregiver even before she was his wife, and she has been his wife for 30 years. People mistakenly assume that she has prepared for this eventuality, this night; that she prepared to be his widow as soon as she married him. She did not. She is in shock. When she was — when they were — younger, she saw him snatch flies from the air. She saw him bleed from a cut one day and wake up the next morning with the cut nearly erased. She believed his blood was different from the blood of other humans. Even much later, when her husband was in exile from his body because of Parkinson’s disease, he was not in exile from himself — he was able to speak most mornings, and when he was finally silenced, he communicated through his touch and through the look in his eyes. He paid attention; he nodded; he squeezed her hand. And so now, in the degree of pain she experiences, she does not feel as though she’s lost an old man with a terminal illness.
She feels as though she’s lost a child.
Jeff Gardner wears a suit and tie for the embalming. It’s a Saturday morning, and there is very little traffic, human or automotive, stirring the desert calm of Mesa, Arizona. It doesn’t matter that no one is likely to see him. Over the past 30 years, Gardner has embalmed, by his estimate, some 5,000 bodies, and he has worn a suit and tie for all of them that have not presented a risk of infection. He is a stout man, fastidious, with a contemplative manner, a bass note in his voice and a taste for somber suits and splendid shoes. He wears the clothes he wears as a matter of reverence — because, as he sometimes says, you never know when you’ll go from looking at the body to meeting the family.
Gardner is Catholic; he is about to embalm a Muslim at the Bunker Family Funeral Home, which is owned by a family of Mormons; but his trade has a way of erasing distinctions. The day before, he flew in from Louisville, the only passenger on a private jet, carrying the case of embalming fluid that would allow Ali’s body to be preserved in a way not forbidden to Muslims. Gardner had learned about this necessity about eight years earlier, when he and Woody Porter, his associate at the A.D. Porter and Sons Funeral Home, were summoned to meet with the Alis at their house in Louisville. It was the meeting that set Muhammad Ali on the course of which today represents the first fulfillment — the planning of his own death and burial. Ali was in attendance; so was Lonnie; so were their lawyers and their accountant; and so were Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic studies professor called in to advise the Alis. Ali was well into what Gianotti calls his “purification,” his humbling at the hands of Allah. But at the time, he still had his good days. And even at his sickest — even at his last — he never stopped knowing exactly who he was. He was, in Shakir’s description, “a praying man” who understood he belonged to Allah. But he also knew he was Muhammad Ali, and so belonged to the world.
It is desirable for a Muslim to be buried within a day of dying rather than be embalmed. It is desirable for a Muslim to go straight into the ground rather than be casketed, so that the ground can have him. But Muhammad Ali wanted to be laid out in Yankee Stadium. He wanted an open casket, so the world could see he was still so pretty! He had dreams about them — the crowds. So he sought compromise. According to Shakir and Gianotti, embalming is not strictly forbidden; an embalming solution containing alcohol or formaldehyde is. Not only are those elements poison, but they are the manifestation of a desire to attain immortality of the body rather than the soul. The body should rot, at the bottom of a hole in the ground, while the soul goes on to paradise.
Gardner invested in a case of “green” embalming fluid that contained no substance offensive to God. For the next eight years, he wore a dedicated pager as dutifully as he wore his jackets, his ties and his alligator shoes … and now that he has gotten the call, he is ready to embalm Muhammad Ali, who came from the hospital last night and this morning is laid out in the basement of the Bunker Funeral Home. It is the most extraordinary circumstance of Gardner’s earthly existence, but the job he has to do is anything but extraordinary; he has done it thousands of times. He embalmed his mother; he embalmed his father; now his touch falls upon a man who has touched so many, and whose message went around the world. It is an honor and privilege for Jeff Gardner to have been chosen to serve Muhammad Ali. Yet he has no choice but to start the way he always has, the way he was taught: He thinks. He breathes. He goes to work.
As Ahmad Ewais washed Ali’s body in accordance with Muslim funeral rites, the men helping him believed they were watching the Muhammad Ali of body washers. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
After Ahmad Ewais eats breakfast with his family, he drives to the Bunker Funeral Home. He is calm. He wears what he usually wears, a polo shirt and khakis. He is a tall man in his mid-40s, with close-cropped hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, and it is impossible to meet him without looking at his hands. They are large and very clean. They are never balled in fists; he holds them as if he were holding a large bowl, and they shape themselves into imploring gestures when Ewais, as is his habit, turns his eyes toward heaven. He is a devout man who has turned his simplest movements into prayers. His fingernails are the color of pearls.
When Ewais gets to the funeral home, Jeff Gardner is waiting for him. Gardner has finished his work, but he wants to make sure Ewais has the linen wrappings he brought with him on the private jet from Louisville — the linen Ali bought for himself years ago. Ewais has brought linen of his own, some of it cut into long strips he uses for tying. He has brought two plastic pitchers, one of them red and the other purple. He has brought a bottle of liquid Dial soap. He has brought towels he bought at Costco. He has brought a mask and gloves and cotton, in case he needs them. He has brought sticks of incense. From Saudi Arabia he has brought water said to be from the spring that bubbled up under the son of Abraham, and a bagful of lotus leaves. He has brought several kinds of perfume. He has brought camphor, which he ground himself in a coffee mill. He has also brought a friend from his mosque in Tempe, who will assist him, along with Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti when they arrive. At approximately 10 o’clock, they do, and Gardner leads them into the room where Ali lies under a sheet. He watches for a while, until Ewais starts washing the body.
Ahmad Ewais is a body washer. He has washed nearly 1,000. It is his vocation, and it has seeped into him, all the way to his fingertips. He believes it is a mercy, and therefore an obligation. He believes that for every body he washes, 40 of his sins are forgiven. He believes that Allah commands the faithful to help the helpless, and he knows from experience that there is nothing in creation as helpless as a dead body, even when the body belongs to Muhammad Ali.
Ewais lights a stick of incense. With soap and water, he washes Ali’s hands and arms up to the elbow, as if Ali were alive, preparing for prayer. Then he cleans Ali’s privates, sliding his hands under a towel. At no time is Ali uncovered or exposed; the towel extends from his belly to his knees, and Ewais lifts it with his left hand and washes with his right, pouring water from the plastic pitchers. It is quiet in the room, Shakir and Gianotti helping turn the body when Ewais asks them to, and the quiet is sacramental. They are transfixed, watching Ewais — how much care he takes, how unhurried are his movements and how certain his hands — and Shakir thinks to himself that Muhammad Ali is being washed by the Muhammad Ali of body washers. But Ewais is transfixed by Ali himself. It is not that the great champion is more than a man; it is that he is precisely a man, and so has wound up here, on the table with him.
Muhammad Ali, no matter what you do in life, this is the final destination! You were The Greatest — may God make you The Purest!
– Ahmad Ewais
He washes him three times, as tradition prescribes, the first time with soap; the second time with the ground lotus leaves, which foam like soap when he adds water; and the third time with camphor and perfume. He covers him with three sheets, stretching from his shoulders to his knees, from his waist to his feet, and then from head to toe. But he also talks to him, and prays for him, thinking the thoughts instead of speaking the words. “Here you are, Muhammad Ali, no matter what you do in life, this is the final destination! You were The Greatest — may God make you The Purest!” As a Muslim, he believes that when humans die, their souls leave their bodies but linger, unable to respond but hearing and seeing and feeling, until their bodies are put to rest. Ewais is working to bring Ali’s soul back to God. It takes him 45 minutes, maybe an hour, to finish, to reach the point where he is tying Ali’s wrappings up with the long strips of linen. He is about to apply perfume to Ali’s face when he calls Shakir and Gianotti over to look. Ali is wearing a linen turban; his face is all that shows, and Shakir and Gianotti are both struck by how regal he looks, like an African king. But there is something else: He gleams. All through the course of his life, people asked if they could touch his face, because it was so smooth and so unmarked and so shiny. Now some of that luster has been restored, and the man who washes him says to his assistants, “Look — his face is as bright as the moon.”
Late that night, Timothy Gianotti goes for a walk to contemplate what he has seen. He remembers when he first met Ali, years before — how shorn he was of all that made him great, yet how great he still was. He lacked physical power, yet it was as though Gianotti had encountered a purified soul sitting in a chair. Now he has seen Ali in death, laid out on a table. Here was a man who never declined God’s call. Called upon to fight, he poured his genius into fighting, and once or twice fought nearly to the death. Called upon to make peace, he made peace at the cost of his athletic prime. Called upon by crowds of people all over the world, he gave himself to them, and moved among them. Called upon to endure the mortification of his body, he surrendered without sacrificing his spirit. He never complained, never lost his faith, and this morning, there it was, returned to him: the shine on his face.
Gianotti has lost track of time and place, and goes outside to regain his sense of purchase under the desert sky. It is Saturday night, June 4. In the morning, he will get on the plane that is taking Ali back to Louisville. But right now he is walking around the Arizona resort where he is staying. This is reality enough. A woman approaches. She is African-American. He has never seen her before, but she knows him. She says, “You’re here for Muhammad Ali.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You know,” she says, “he belonged to us.“
There is nobody watching. There is nobody cheering. There are no crowds. It is early on Sunday morning, and three vehicles are making their way to the airport. One is a white hearse containing a travel casket draped with a funeral cloth provided by Zaid Shakir, black and stitched in gold with Islamic verses. The two others are a police car and a black SUV. The vehicle at the front of the procession carries a detail from the local police; the one in the rear carries the three homicide detectives from Louisville. It is so quiet that the men who make up this cortege of strangers share a sense of disbelief — surely they will be discovered, set upon. They are not. They make it to the airport, where a chartered jet is waiting. They drive right on the tarmac, right up to the cargo hold. A few of Ali’s friends are on hand to help the undertakers, the police and the flight crew load the sheathed casket on the plane; they put their hands on it, on him, then go up the stairs to join the living. The police car, the SUV and the hearse begin to leave; the plane prepares for takeoff. But as it does, the driver of the hearse sees a squabble of television trucks speeding onto the tarmac. They come to a stop at the same time their quarry lifts into the sky.
The plane is a 737 leased from the San Francisco Giants. It is the large plane the man in the hold wanted it to be. There are not quite 30 passengers. Although they are scattered around the cabin, they all have something in common. It is no accident that they are together; it is no surprise that they are here. To the extent that they know one another, they know one another because for years they were bound to the same secret: Long before Muhammad Ali died, they were chosen to lay him to rest.
Lonnie sits in the front of the plane with his children and grandchildren, many of them wearing shirts proclaiming her husband “The Greatest of All Time.” Some of the family is not on the charter, and when Lonnie tried to make plane and hotel reservations for them while she was still in Arizona, she received the first inkling that the size and scope of the funeral might exceed her expectations: “What is going on in Louisville?” the travel agent said. “Why is it so difficult to find flights into Louisville?”
“Well, my husband died,” Lonnie said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the travel agent said, as though Lonnie had spoken a non sequitur. “Yeah, but what is going on there?”
Lonnie never informed the agent that her husband happened to be Muhammad Ali. But that’s Lonnie. Though her face is gaunt with strain and she walks with a slight limp, she still has the freckles and talent for rolling her eyes that identify her for what she was, is and always will be: Yolanda Williams, the girl from the neighborhood. She was 6 years old when she met Cassius Clay; he was 21, and about to become the heavyweight champion of the world. She lived across the street from his parents; his mother and her mother were friends. She is living proof of how important Louisville remained to him, because one of the many things she wound up doing for him was keeping Louisville in his life. When Lonnie calls herself a “Louisville girl,” she means that she is at once a Southern girl and a Catholic-school girl, not to mention a girl Ali recognized early on for having good sense. She refers to herself as “ol’ Lonnie”; she insists she and Ali were nothing more and nothing less than normal people, despite her husband being the most famous man in the world. Her father had polio, so even Ali’s Parkinson’s disease seemed normal to her. From personal experience, she knew he belonged to anyone who asked for his autograph, but it was hard to fathom he belonged to everyone. And when he spoke of holding his memorial service in an arena or a stadium, she’d say, “Yeah, right, Muhammad.” This is not to say she isn’t consumed by a sense of mission as she sits on the plane. She is, but it’s the mission of a Louisville girl who wants to take Muhammad Ali home.
Bob Gunnell kept The Book, outlining the plans for Ali’s funeral. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
In the Quran, it is written that all is written — “nothing will happen to us except what Allah has decreed for us.” And so it is with Ali, in the most literal sense. There is a book, called The Book, that is the chronicle of his death, foretold. It is a compilation of sorts, drawing upon the expertise of lawyers, cops, clerics, masters of the mortuary arts. It was written by Bob Gunnell. Eight years ago, when the Alis were looking for someone to plan Muhammad’s (funeral, they chose Gunnell, a Louisville public relations man who would later start his own firm, BoxcarPR, and who had no experience in event planning. They were comfortable with the Louisville guy, though in fact Gunnell began as a country boy from Eminence, Kentucky. He found out what kind of stage he was about to occupy when he was watching Michael Jackson’s funeral in 2009. Lonnie called and said, “Bob, I don’t want the funeral to be like this. We want it to be in the Muslim tradition. It needs to be carried out to Muhammad’s wishes, to the T.”
Gunnell and his associate at Boxcar, Danielle Rudy Davis, completed three drafts of The Book before submitting it for approval, and when they did, Ali reviewed and initialed each page. There were 169 of them. In addition, there was a sheaf of nondisclosure agreements, several of which have been signed by passengers on the flight from Phoenix to Louisville. Jeff Gardner, in his suit and tie; Todd Kessinger and his crew, in their dress blues; Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti; Gunnell himself: They were all bound to secrecy, and The Book is called The Book because under no circumstance is there to exist — and be available to prying eyes — a document titled “The Funeral of Muhammad Ali.”
And yet who knows what God’s own book looks like, how many second thoughts and scratch-outs complicate its pages? The Book might be stored in Boxcar’s safe, but it is always and forever subject to revision. Five days before Ali was admitted to Scottsdale Osborn, Gunnell had the meeting with Lonnie, and he had to halve his estimate of the crowd. Yesterday, not long after Ali’s body was purified by Ahmad Ewais, Gunnell met Lonnie in the shoe section of Nordstrom, and they came to what seemed a final plan for the week to come. And yet … who knows what awaits them in Louisville? The Book, in its present iteration, is based on an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people attending Ali’s memorial. But Gunnell, here on the plane, in one of the suits he bought at Nordstrom, can’t help but be haunted by a conversation he’d had with Matt Lauer the day Ali died. Lauer had been the first newsman to know that death was imminent, and in one of their conversations, Gunnell had asked how big he thought the funeral was going to be. Lauer’s answer: “Think Nelson Mandela.”
“We have to have an emergency meeting,” Shakir says to Gunnell. They are still in the air. It’s a three-hour flight, and there is still time before they touch ground. Yet there is a sense of urgency. It is Sunday; when the plane lands, the death of Muhammad Ali, still a private event, becomes a public one. Gunnell has already directed the Boxcar staff to clear hotels and event halls all over Louisville, and Boxcar and Lonnie have been overwhelmed by the inquiries they’ve received from celebrities and world leaders. One of them has been from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants to join the ranks of eulogists at Ali’s public memorial service.
Ali selected his eulogists long ago, and Erdogan was not among them. But when Lonnie suggests maybe he should be able to pray or read from the Quran at the Islamic prayer service known as the jenazah, Gunnell reminds her the jenazah, at least as envisioned in The Book, is supposed to be a small and private affair, open only to family and friends. So the question is not how big the funeral is going to be, nor how many famous people can be accommodated, but to whom does Muhammad Ali belong?
He had that kind of soul, the kind people claim for themselves, so burying him requires sorting through any number of constituencies. He was a husband and a father. He was a citizen of Louisville; he was a citizen of the world. He was a proud black man who held the truth of his own beauty self-evident; he was offered — especially in his later years when he had been made safe by silence — as the embodiment of post-racial possibility. He became a global figure not when he became heavyweight champion of the world but when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, exchanging the name of a proud young man for a name that made his people proud. He was a Muslim, devout and conservative, and he was a celebrity who tended to speak of himself in superlatives. He never stopped calling himself The Greatest and he never stopped saying God is great, and he somehow reconciled those assertions.
You can all sit down. Ali goes first.
– Lonnie Ali
It is easy to say that Ali belongs to everyone. It might even be true. But on the plane, Shakir sits with Lonnie Ali and Bob Gunnell and says that he belongs to the people who need him, and the people who need him are Muslims and African-Americans. He belongs to Allah, yes, but he belongs to Allah because he belongs to the people. If you deny the people the chance to pray for him — well, it will do damage not only to them but to him. He is not just here to be celebrated; he is crossing over, and so he is here to be ferried, by many hands. Allah needs his soul; therefore the people need his body, to pray for his soul’s release.
The plane flies into Louisville, and when it lands, and the passengers begin their restless stirring, (Lonnie stands up. She is a soft-spoken woman but also a plainspoken one, and now she makes an announcement that sounds like a statement of general principle: “You can all sit down. Ali goes first.”
Louisville funeral home director Woody Porter buried both of Ali’s parents, then Ali. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
It is a windy day in Louisville, and the wind keeps peeling the black and gold funeral cloth off the casket as it is unloaded from the cargo hold of the plane and loaded in the back of a black hearse. The mayor, Greg Fischer, is waiting in Louisville, along with a crescent-shaped formation of eight black SUVs, containing a full security contingent run by Kelly Jones, the head of special ops for the Louisville Metro Police. There are helicopters in Louisville, taking soundless footage, and there are jangled nerves in Louisville, and on the way to the funeral home, Jones sees people in cars pulling out their phones and taking photographs, so he orders the procession to start running lights.
Woody Porter is waiting for Lonnie at the second of the A.D. Porter Funeral Home locations, away from downtown. Porter is the scion of four generations of African-American funeral directors. He is bald-headed and dapper, and though he is hobbled by diabetes and knows how to lower his voice in reverence when called upon to do so, he is a beaming presence with a wheezy laugh — an ebullient undertaker. He buried both of Muhammad’s parents and Lonnie’s mother, and when Ali used the visitation of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. as an opportunity to hand out Islamic literature at the head of the casket, Porter knew Ali well enough to say, “Ali, sit down. You don’t have to stand during your father’s visitation.” Lonnie trusts him because he is family and can make her laugh.
Eight years earlier, he went with Jeff Gardner to Ali’s Louisville home for a preliminary meeting about Ali’s funeral. When Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti explained to him that Ali, as an observant Muslim, should be buried in as plain a casket as possible, Porter turned to Ali and said, “Ali, what do you want — metal or wood?” Ali answered, “Wood.” Porter stayed on Lonnie for a long time to go ahead and buy the casket, and when she did, it stayed at A.D. Porter for nearly four years. Now, as he waits for Lonnie, the casket waits for Ali.
The casket is not overly embellished, in accordance with the Alis’ wishes. But neither is it a pine box; neither is it anything less than what Porter calls “one beautiful piece of furniture.” He had to order a custom casket, given Ali’s size — or, in Porter’s words, his length. It is made of African mahogany, each plank 4 to 6 inches thick, so that the entire wooden box weighs 700 pounds, empty.
After Ali arrives at A.D. Porter Southeast, Porter helps move his body from the shipping casket to the casket he has prepared for him. So do Jeff Gardner, Zaid Shakir, Timothy Gianotti and Ali’s youngest son, Asaad. Porter sees Ali’s face and thinks, “He looks good. Ali looks good!” When Lonnie and Asaad are about to have their own private visitation with him, Lonnie’s first quiet time with her husband since his death, Porter asks her whether she wants to see him. Gardner opens the casket for her, and she beholds her husband’s face. He was always so careful about his face, and now, yes, it shines. But she can’t bring herself to call it beautiful, because it is shadowed by the fact that she will never see it again.
When Todd Kessinger returns to work on Monday, he checks to see what has happened in his absence. As the detective in charge of the homicide department, he has been busy because Louisville has been bloody; indeed, the city in 2016 is in the middle of a record run of murders. But the last killing had occurred on June 2, when a 21-year-old named Maulik Patel was shot on his way home from a gas station. There has not been another since Ali died, and Kessinger begins to count the days of grace.
At 9:04, the sun sets and Ramadan begins.
The champ had a persistent dream — he is running on Broadway in downtown Louisville, and all of the city has turned out for him, chanting a name meant to be chanted, “Ali! Ali! Ali!” until at last the chant gives him wings, and he takes a step into the air and begins to fly. But Broadway, in downtown Louisville, does not end in sky; it ends in Cave Hill Cemetery, where he will be buried.
Cave Hill is an elaborate historical cemetery, a rolling and well-tended garden the first graves of which were dug in 1848 and out of which grow the granite monuments of the families who made their names during Louisville’s industrial heyday. It is white, in terms of the impression left by its pale stone flora, and also white in terms of its venerable clientele — as white, indeed, as the suit coat of one of its most famous inhabitants, Colonel Sanders. It is home to 6,100 Union soldiers and 228 Confederate ones, all interred under the flags of their respective nations. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and beautifully heartbreaking, a dream not of eternal life but rather of eternal status, and eight years before Ali’s death, Lonnie visited with Woody Porter and bought a 12-grave lot in Section U, on a hill positioned between the maintenance shed and the pond set aside for the scattering of ashen remains. While it might be tempting to ascribe symbolic significance to the Alis’ deciding to settle forever among those whose homes their ancestors could only have visited by way of the back door, Lonnie, forever of Louisville, keeps it simple: “It was either Cave Hill or Mecca.”
Now, on Tuesday, Lonnie returns with a contingent of advisers, not only Woody Porter but also Bob Gunnell, Jeff Gardner, Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti. A funeral tent stands upon the real estate the Alis have already purchased, but Lonnie has come to entertain an offer: Would she like to move? She meets with Gwen Mooney, a friendly and forthcoming woman who gives off the impression that she is continually pinching herself out of disbelief that she runs a place as charming as Cave Hill. Mooney says she is simply making sure there is no room for regret, but at the same time she frets that the lot Lonnie has selected is not the most desirable one available — and so she offers her a lot near Cave Hill’s Broadway gate, off one of the circular avenues that have traditionally provided the cemetery’s most prestigious addresses. Shaded with old trees, it is, Mooney says, sacred ground, a place untouched by backhoe or spade — until now. No burials have occurred here; no burials have been allowed here, but for Ali, Cave Hill is willing not only to make an exception but to make an exception that will cost no more than Section U.
Lonnie says no — no, no, as briskly as that. It is not simply that she prefers the seclusion of the lot she has already purchased, or that Zaid Shakir is on hand to tell her that the prescribed orientation of Ali’s body, with his feet to the north and his head to the south, is more easily attained on the little hill by the scattering pond. It is that Ali needs to go where Ali died believing he was going to go. Her plans are his plans; years ago, he came here with Lonnie, staying in the car as she showed him the lot, and the lot is where she will come for peace, if peace ever comes.
They go from Cave Hill to the Kentucky Fairgrounds, where the jenazah is to be held Thursday — the jenazah, the prayer service now with a life of its own, having gone from something unplanned to something aswirl with unreconciled energies. The body will be there. In a closed coffin, under the black and gold cloth … but the body will be there, it has to be there, in a room among the faithful, all of whom will have unrestricted access. At the fairgrounds, there is an arena called Freedom Hall, where the Louisville Cardinals used to play basketball and where Cassius Clay had his first professional fight. It is the venue Lonnie’s security consultants have suggested, because they can control the access points. But for Zaid Shakir it is still not big enough for Ali — and so fairgrounds officials show him the commercial exhibition hall next door. It is vast and it is the color of linen, with high ceilings held up by graceful columns, and as soon as Shakir sees it he thinks:
This looks like a mosque.
Maj. Todd Kessinger, Sgt. Jon Lesher and Detective Brian Roggenkamp provided security in Ali’s hospital room and at his grave. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
They don’t sleep. Nobody does — Bob Gunnell and his staff have set up a “war room” in the Marriott in downtown Louisville, where the people never stop calling and the phones never stop ringing and the adrenaline never stops surging. They don’t sleep because they can’t sleep, and no matter when Gunnell finally collapses into his hotel-room bed, he starts his day by checking in with Lonnie at sunrise.
On most days, they face the dawn before Louisville does. On Wednesday, however, Gunnell texts Lonnie at 6 a.m. with news of something that started happening in the smallest hours of the morning. They’d gone to sleep expecting the KFC Yum Center, the big downtown arena, to start distributing tickets at 10 for the Friday memorial service. The tickets are free, but anybody who wants them has to get in line and pick them up in person. Now Gunnell wakes up to the news that there is a line at the Yum Center — a line that started forming at 4 in the morning; a line that extends over the Clark Memorial Bridge on 2nd Avenue, all the way to Indiana; a line that is forcing Mayor Fischer to open the Yum Center’s ticket windows immediately. Gunnell sends Lonnie a text, and she answers: Did I read this right? He calls her back. Yes, he says. All the way to Indiana.
The windows open, and in about 45 minutes 15,000 tickets are gone. And Lonnie has to smile because it has such an Ali-esque ring to it. Even when I died, the people lined up all the way to Indiana. She is not happy; happy is not the word for what she is feeling, and won’t be for a long time. But something is going on, a fulfillment of what she thought was fantasy. Muhammad had told her the truth. The man who dreamed of crowds knew they were coming for him, and now here they came.
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A plane comes out of the sky. It is early Wednesday morning, 2:30 or thereabouts, but a motorcade occupies the ramp, waiting for the plane to land. It is a large motorcade, indeed a presidential one, comprising about 50 cars, engines running, lights throwing spinning shadows. When the plane lands, a trim figure in a suit descends the air stairs, then steps onto a red carpet that’s been rolled out for him. He is not a large man, but he has a certain coiled swagger, as though a red carpet stretches before him no matter where he goes. He also has his own armed security force, men with a coiled swagger all their own.
Barack Obama will not be attending Ali’s funeral because, now in the last year of his presidency, he is going to his older daughter’s high school graduation. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, has come to Louisville bearing gifts. He has brought a piece of fabric said to be from the Kaaba, the cubelike shrine at the center of Mecca, and therefore at the very heart of Islam. He wants to drape it over Ali’s casket at Thursday’s jenazah. He is not so different from the multitudes who have made pilgrimages to Ali’s funeral. He wants to bring something of himself to Ali; he wants to establish his connection to Ali; he wants to celebrate Ali, and therefore celebrate himself and his people. On the other hand, he is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a powerful man for whom the funeral represents not just an occasion but an opportunity. He is, his representatives insist, the leader of the Islamic world. And he wants a platform at the jenazah commensurate with his exalted position.
Seven years earlier, Lonnie Ali saw the funeral of Michael Jackson and knew she didn’t want her husband’s funeral to be like that — a funeral in which the mourners seemed to have an individual stake. She envisioned something very different, a funeral in the spirit of Muhammad Ali and for the spirit of Muhammad Ali, in which believers gather only to pray the fallen hero to paradise. In that way, the funeral would be similar in spirit to the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all observant Muslims. There would be no distinctions made between rich and poor or black and white, nor would there be special accommodations made for the exercise of political power, since all are equal in the eyes of God.
And so it is that by the time the sun rises on Thursday, the atmosphere of the North Wing of the Exhibition Hall at the Kentucky Exposition Center is already charged with a mixture of devotion and conflict. The security teams assigned to the jenazah from the U.S. Secret Service and the Louisville Metro Police don’t like the hall, for precisely the same reasons that Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti do — because it is vast, and flat, with no “advantage points” should the presence of Muhammad Ali’s body inspire a free-for-all. The believers begin arriving when the officers do, forming a line at 6 in the morning, and by the time Zaid Shakir begins the jenazah six hours later, standing next to the casket in which lies the body of Muhammad Ali, there are thousands on hand to join him in prayer. They are black and they are white; they are Muslim and they are non-Muslim; they are members of Ali’s family and they are members of the family of the famous; and they have made the Kentucky Exposition Center into an impromptu temple when the president of Turkey arrives with his security team.
Erdogan has indeed come with his gift, the piece of cloth from the sacred Kaaba. But the gift has been refused because it came with conditions, and the men around him are determined to see those conditions met. They form a phalanx around their president, and they begin elbowing and muscling their way to the body of Muhammad Ali. They are invited to sit in the VIP section, with the American politicians and sports figures, but no, they seek a position not only of prominence but of proximity so they can grace Ali’s casket with the cloth from the Kaaba. The standing room-only crowd responds to the jostling as crowds do, with an electric sense of unease; the Louisville police officer who has been standing alone in front of the casket is joined by seven of his colleagues, who form a line of their own. The two phalanxes meet; there is talk of the body being evacuated; and then Timothy Gianotti steps forward, to remind Erdogan’s men of the spirit of the hajj. It is a moment of uncertainty that turns out to be a moment of truth, for Erdogan withdraws. He leaves the hall; he leaves Louisville; and the plane on which he came returns to the sky.
That night, visitors come to Porter’s, one after another. Ali is in a closed casket set in a private room, and they each receive a prescribed amount of time to visit with him. Louis Farrakhan goes first, with representatives from the Nation of Islam; they get half an hour. Next come the children, for an hour. Then comes Rahman Ali, in the grip of the same disease that shackled his brother. When he was a young man, he had a sharply chiseled face; now it is wide, almost burgeoning, like Muhammad’s. He has an hour at Porter’s, but he is a man inclined to show up and to leave unexpectedly, and he doesn’t take all of the allotted time. Ali is alone as the funeral home clears out; then four men open the casket and take a last look. It is not out of love, or the impulse that takes over in mythology, when mortals make the mistake of sneaking one final glimpse at the gods. It is a matter of duty. They have to turn his body so that when he’s in the ground at Cave Hill, feet to the north and head to the south, he’s lying on his right side, with his face facing east. Woody Porter, Jeff Gardner, Zaid Shakir and Timothy Gianotti: They all have a hand in it; they all turn him and rig the casket so he stays turned. And they see him. He had an unusual face for a man universally considered handsome — it was round and soft, lacking in sharp edges and more notable for its skin than its bones. He rarely called himself handsome; he called himself pretty, and he was right. “I’m a bad man,” he said, yet he never gave up the face of a beloved child until his face gave up on him. It is the pampered softness that left him, and as he lies in his casket, it’s been replaced by a turbaned hauteur and that ineradicable shine. When the four men finish their work, they become the last men on earth to see his face; and when they close the lid, they know that no human being will see Muhammad Ali again.
Friend John Ramsey served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
There is a prayer service Friday morning, led by Zaid Shakir, and then the pallbearers take the casket to the shiny black hearse. There are 10 of them, because of the mass of what they’re carrying, and they all have one thing in common: They’ve been chosen. Some are relatives, mostly from the Clay side; some are famous, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and Will Smith; and one has been chosen to be a pallbearer because Ali chose him to be his friend. John Ramsey was just a fan when he met Ali; a worshipful young man in his 20s goaded by friends to approach Ali at a party. He went with his Howard Cosell impression, to which Ali responded: “Howard Cosell gets paid for that. What’s your excuse?” Later, he looked at Ramsey and said: “I like you. Write down your number. I’ll come see you some time.” Two weeks later, Ramsey’s mother told him to get the door, and it was Ali. They’d been friends ever since, and Ramsey, who has a sports talk show on Louisville radio and has never quite been able to extinguish the light of worship in his face, has always wondered why. He traveled with Ali; he gave Ali his meds and buttoned his shirts; and seeing how Ali acted with other people — and the people to whom he gave his attention — has led him to one conclusion: Ali chose Ramsey to be his friend because Ali saw that Ramsey needed to be his friend. Ali responded to the need in people and people responded to the need in Ali, and what Ramsey can’t help thinking as he meets Mike Tyson in the morning, and sits in a car in the funeral procession in the unlikely company of Lennox Lewis and Will Smith, is that they must have needed him too.
There are 17 vehicles in the procession. The hearse is three vehicles from the lead; Lonnie’s SUV is three from the hearse, behind the imams and the pallbearers. She is in the first family car, with Asaad, her sister Marilyn and her nephew. And so others in the procession see them before she does: the people. It is not merely a crowd lined up along Bardstown Road; it is her husband’s dream of crowds. Not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands upon thousands, giving voice to billions, in an incessant cheer that echoes over the miles. Ali! Ali! Ali!
At first Yolanda Williams thinks it will go away — that they will go away — when they get past the exit of A.D. Porter, and then again when they leave Bardstown Road and get on the highway. But the chant keeps getting louder, the crowd keeps growing thicker, until Lonnie Ali at last surrenders, to them, to him and to their need for one another.
The route to Cave Hill is 23 miles long, and the procession takes two hours to complete it. They go on the highway, they stop in front of the Muhammad Ali Center, they loop through downtown Louisville on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and then they head west, to the home where he grew up. He never stopped visiting the old street. He used to ask Ramsey to drive there, and when he saw men hanging around on the corner, he’d roll down his window and say, “I’ll still whip all you n—–s.” They’d stop and do a double take, then cry, “Ali!” They are all here now, all the men from the neighborhood, all the women and the children, all the babies, all of black Louisville celebrating his return and laying their final claim on him. Lonnie had asked Kelly Jones and security consultant Jim Cain whether the procession could stop in front of his old house, painted pink; they said yes, for 15 seconds, fearing that they would be overwhelmed. But now they have to stop. They have no choice. When they make the left onto Grand Avenue, they are enveloped not by a crowd but by a populace, not by people but by a people, and they feel the tug of humanity itself, this warring entity made up of hands, tears, laughter, dancing, music, signs, babies, wheelchairs, voices raised in a two-syllable chant, an articulated roar: AH-LEEEEEE. Lonnie rolls down her window. Even Will Smith rolls down his window, saying, “Muhammad wouldn’t want us to be in a bubble!” More hands, outstretched, imploring; and now kisses.
And then tears. They all cry, even the hard ones, especially the hard ones, Bob Gunnell, Mike Tyson and, yes, Lonnie, crying for him, crying for them, crying for the crowd touching their cars and piling roses on Ali’s hearse, but also crying for themselves, the certain knowledge that for as long as they live they will never live through something like this again, nor feel quite so alive. The procession starts moving again, the police officer who stood alone in front of Ali’s casket at the jenazah now at the front, in a “piercing” car that parts the waters and allows Ali passage home, down Broadway, where this man who dreamed of crowds also dreamed of flight.
Artist Maggie Cassaro prepared thousands of roses to decorate Cave Hill Cemetery. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
Maggie Cassaro’s mother died unexpectedly the previous September. Grief-stricken, the artist wanted to do something special for her, so she collected roses and scattered their petals over the entrance of her house. The sidewalk, the path to the porch, the porch itself: all graced by a gust of roses. When Ali died, Cassaro called Cave Hill to ask permission to dress its venerable gates. The office told her to call Boxcar. She did, and the Boxcar folks called Lonnie. They’d heard dozens of similar offers and requests from people wanting to participate in some way in Ali’s funeral. Maggie Cassaro’s was the only one Lonnie accepted, the only one that made her cry.
An average rose has 44 petals. With the help of the old-line Louisville florist Nanz Kraft, Cassaro bagged some 88,000 of them. Now, as the procession makes its way toward Cave Hill, Cassaro is one of the multitudes at the gates, tending to a drift of red and pink snowflakes on a 90-degree day in June. There are roses everywhere in Louisville, roses in the streets, roses on Ali’s hearse, roses still in people’s hands. But Cave Hill was swept by bomb-sniffing dogs at 6 in the morning. All of its employees are employed on this day, many of them posted at the perimeter to make sure nobody gets over the cemetery walls. It is shut down and sealed tight, and as Ali enters a place he will never leave, the petals piled at the gate linger like Louisville’s last kiss.
Every person on the grounds crew at Cave Hill Cemetery had a hand in digging Ali’s grave. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
They dug the hole the day before. It is usually a job for four, but this time it was a job for all of the men in Cave Hill’s excavation crew so all eight could one day tell their children they dug Muhammad Ali’s grave. They cut the hole with a sod knife and dug it out with a backhoe, one man after another working the controls. They gave way to a two-man team from a local manufacturer of funeral vaults, who brought Ali’s vault to the cemetery on the back of a flatbed truck, then lowered it into the ground with a winch. It was — is — a basic vault, black with silver highlights, set in a hole 63 inches deep and 36 inches wide, from which has been displaced a hillock of earth and to which a hillock of earth is waiting patiently to return.
It is easy to get lost at Cave Hill Cemetery, with its 16 miles of coiled roads, so as soon as the gates are closed, Gwen Mooney goes to the head of the funeral procession. She knows the way to Section U. Not only has the procession been returned to a world of quiet and privacy, but the mourners have been introduced to their own fatigue. In their black sunglasses and black clothes, they emerge from their cars into the sun and listen to Zaid Shakir say prayers at the graveside. Up on the hill, the excavation crew and the two men from the vault manufacturer stand ready to go to work, close enough to see but too far away to listen, until they are summoned to the burial. At many funerals, the family leaves before the casket is lowered into the ground, the vault sealed and the hole filled back up with dirt. At Ali’s funeral, however, the family is determined to see the whole thing through because of what it owes Allah and because of what it owes Muhammad Ali. The family members cannot bear to leave him to unseen mercies, so they witness the Cave Hill crew lower him into the grave, then a man named Ricky Barnett use a small crane to seal the vault with a 1,000-pound concrete lid swinging from short chains. The lid makes the vault airtight and virtually waterproof, transforming it into an underground tomb that exists in contradiction of God’s will. But God is merciful, as long as his mercy is not flaunted, and now Zaid Shakir picks up a handful of dirt and tosses it onto the casket of Muhammad Ali. It makes a thumping, rattling sound.
“From this earth we have created you,” Shakir says.
The second handful:
“To this earth we return you.”
And then the third:
“From this earth we will resurrect you.”
As Muhammad Ali died, Shakir told him what to say to God. He does the same now that Ali’s body has been laid to rest and his soul has been released to face the questioning of angels. He addresses him directly: “Muhammad Ali, say Allah is Lord …” But now there is work to be done, and he is not alone. He watches Mike Tyson take off his suit jacket and grab one of three gleaming new stainless steel shovels that Cave Hill has provided for the occasion. Tyson digs, hard, and then turns one shovelful of dirt into the grave, and then another. His contribution is not ceremonial; he does not hand over the shovel; he begins to sweat, and then Shakir hears that sound, the unmistakable uuungh of Mike Tyson getting to work. He thinks, I have to keep up with Mike Tyson … but that’s what they all think as they grab shovels and sweat through their clothes in the heat and keep working until the vault is covered and all that is to be seen of Muhammad Ali is a layer of Louisville earth, even though they still smell roses.
Then they go. Fifteen thousand ticket holders are waiting for them at the Yum Center, along with Bill Clinton and the other eulogists; the famous friends; the honored guests; the convocation of all-timers hanging out in the University of Louisville locker room pressed into service as a greenroom. Kareem and Beckham, Jim Brown, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard … But as the mourners leave the mortal remains of Muhammad Ali to the backhoe and the shovels, three men in suits and ties stay behind until the work is done. Todd Kessinger, Brian Roggenkamp and Jon Lesher. A week ago, they were the only ones left in the hospital room after Muhammad Ali died. Now they’re the only ones left at his grave. It has been an easy week for them in many ways; no one has been killed since June 2. But the next morning, Kessinger will go back to work and find that he has to investigate the murder of a woman named Jacoya Mangrum, killed at 4 in the morning on June 11, 2016, in a world without Ali.
Lonnie Ali is still shocked by the depth of her loss, and also by the depth of the kindness people show her. Wayne Lawrence for ESPN
It is tempting, when paying a visit, to believe that Ali has been set free — to believe that he exists in the beauty of the setting, in the sun in the sky and the wind in the magnolia tree that overhangs his grave, instead of in the ground. But he has been there a year now. He is at the bottom of a hole dug by eight men sharing a backhoe. He is in a vault, black with silver highlights, manufactured less than 2 miles away and then sealed, in front of his family, by a man who lowered a 1,000-pound lid with a crane. He is in a casket made of African mahogany, with each plank 4 to 6 inches thick, so that the casket weighs 700 pounds, empty. Still very clean, he is perfumed and wrapped in three pieces of linen tied together with linen strips. Only his face shows, but it is facing east, toward Mecca, because before his casket was closed for the last time, four men — two of them Muslim and two of them Christian — turned him on his right side. The vault is airtight, and in his veins there are traces of the fluid used to embalm him, not desirable by Islamic standards but also not forbidden. Time conquers everything, and the elements will eventually have their way with his body, and him, as Allah intended.
And because Muhammad Ali is still there, so is the woman born Yolanda Williams, known to all as Lonnie. She visits, knowing she was right all along: It’s not only a beautiful site, it’s the right site for Muhammad. It is secluded and it is peaceful, but above all it is welcoming, with two benches made from the same black African granite out of which his stone was cut. She sits on them, hoping to get the chance to speak to him. So many people think she took care of him. What they don’t know — what they can never understand — is that he took care of her. He was always with her; he has always been with her. She met him when she was a child, so when she says that losing him was like losing a child, she says, in nearly the same breath, that losing him was like losing a father. A father, a husband, a child: a totality. He raised me, she says. And so one afternoon, as she approaches with trembling the anniversary of his death, she goes to see Muhammad again. It’s Derby weekend in Louisville, so Maggie Cassaro gets to the grave before Lonnie does, dressing the lot in a flutter of rose petals in the shape of a horse collar. It overwhelms Lonnie, but then so much does since she lost her husband. She insists that people don’t know her, “ol’ Lonnie.” But she is the beneficiary of one kindness after another. She and Muhammad were optimists, she says. He not only never complained about his condition, he never complained about anything. And he never talked about death; he talked only — and incessantly — of the afterlife. She is an optimist still, for all her tears. She still cries easily. But she doesn’t cry often at the grave because she doesn’t get a chance to. She goes there to have time alone with Muhammad, but then he is never alone. He was a warrior and a will-o’-the-wisp; a praying man and a trickster; a magician who always had mischief on his mind, and he is making mischief still. Time alone with Muhammad Ali? Lonnie doesn’t get five minutes. She doesn’t get two minutes. She doesn’t get a minute, before someone comes and visits his grave. She’s supposed to have the last word. But the last word is written now for all to see, atop the shiny black stone quarried from Africa, and she can’t complain if she has to share it:
Photos by Wayne Lawrence. Illustrations by Mark Smith.