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Planning a Champion’s Funeral

Muhammad Ali couldn’t escape the fate that waits all of us in the end: the day we pass away. But he could decide how his funeral would be conducted. And that’s exactly what he did. He created a script for everything that was going to happen during his memorials and burial. In short, he had a funeral plan.

It was written down in something that he and his close family and friends called simply “The Book”. He spent a long time getting the details right and discussing things with those who he cared about and whose opinions he respected. In 2010, he felt that everything was ready and gave his final approval to the plans. Along the way, he had considered some ideas and rejected them. At one time, he thought perhaps that his body should lie for a period in the Muhammad Ali Center in his home-town of Louisville, Kentucky.

That way, crowds of people could visit the Center and pay their last respects to him in person, as it were. But what if the crowds were very big, as seemed likely to be the case? What if there was a crush and people got hurt in the confined space even of a large building? And his wife Lonnie pointed out that, whatever else happened, the crowds would surely disrupt routines at the Center, diverting it from its usual educational and cultural purposes.

So Ali decided not to follow the idea of public display for his body. Instead, he settled on a funeral procession through Louisville. His body would be driven slowly and respectfully along the streets that he had known as a boy, past the museum that was built in his honour when he became one of the most famous men in history, along the entire boulevard that was named after him, and through the actual neighbourhood in which he had grown up and learnt to box.

A procession in the open air would mean plenty of space even for the largest crowds and plenty of opportunity for people to take a last look at their hero in a calm and unhurried way. He also chose a memorial service in a local sporting venue, the KFC Yum! Arena, and scripted the details of his actual funeral and burial. Ali was, of course, a Muslim, having converted in the 1960s and changed his name from Cassius Clay, but he wanted space at his funeral for his friends from other faith traditions, including Christianity and Judaism.

According to Bob Gunnell, one of his closest friends and a spokesman for the Ali family, the process of planning his own funeral did not depress or upset Ali. He accepted his own mortality and was glad of the chance to exercise some control over the way in which he would be remembered. Ali knew that his passing would make headlines around the world and he was determined to send a message of peace and brotherhood with his funeral and the memorial events surrounding it.

The funeral itself will take place on Thursday May 8 2016 and will be attended by many famous people, from the former US President Bill Clinton and the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Hollywood stars Will Smith and Billy Crystal. The British boxing champion Lennox Lewis will be there, serving as a pall-bearer with some of Ali’s family. Everyone will be united in both their grief and the sense of honour they feel at having known Ali and being invited to take important roles at his funeral.

But despite his stardom, Ali never forgot his ordinary fans and his funeral plan was also written with them in mind. He wanted to give them a message about how to face death without fear or depression. “The Book” is central to that message: a funeral plan is an excellent idea for everyone, famous or ordinary, rich or poor. It brings our family and friends together and prepares them for our passing in an unhurried atmosphere, when decisions can be made after careful reflection and discussion. The passing of a loved one is obviously a time of great emotional vulnerability. By making his funeral plan in good time, Muhammad Ali eased the burden on his family and ensured that they could attend the ceremonies in the secure knowledge that everything would run just as they and Ali had wanted it to run.