LOUISVILLE, KY – Muhammad Ali began crafting details of his own funeral years ago, insisting on an open and inclusive service, a family spokesman said Tuesday.
“This began with ‘The Champ’ a decade ago,” spokesman Bob Gunnell told reporters at a news conference. “As he convened the meeting, he said, ‘This is what I would like to see, this is the type of program that I would like to see, that is inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me.’ ”
Ali also said it was important that the memorials be conducted in the Muslim tradition, Gunnell said.
The three-time heavyweight champion died Friday night at age 74 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.
The planning for the memorials involved many people in the Louisville, Kentucky, area who were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, Gunnell said.
The plans will begin to play out Wednesday in a series of events expected to draw thousands of friends and fans of the late boxer to his hometown of Louisville as well as reporters and dignitaries from around the world.
While organizers say they will not release a full list of dignitaries attending Friday’s memorial service — the cornerstone event — they have said that former President Bill Clinton, actor and comedian Billy Crystal and journalist Bryant Gumbel are among those scheduled to give eulogies.
Actor Will Smith, who played the title role in the 2001 film “Ali,” and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among eight pallbearers, according to organizers.
Here’s a schedule of the planned events:
Wednesday: ‘I Am Ali’ festival
The city-sponsored festival Wednesday will “celebrate Ali’s life journey and fierce determination,” according to the city of Louisville. In addition to arts, entertainment and education offerings, “there will also be a wall where children can write what they want to be the greatest in.”
Thursday: Islamic funeral prayer program
A brief program of prayer, called a jenazah, will be held Thursday at the north wing of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, with an overflow crowd allowed in Freedom Hall, where Ali’s last fight in Louisville was held in 1961. Imam Zaid Shakir, a Muslim scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, will lead the service.
“To be properly prepared for burial, prayed over and then buried is a right owed to every single Muslim,” Shakir said in a statement provided by organizers. “If no one fulfills those rights, then the entire community has fallen into sin. In the case of someone of Muhammad Ali’s stature, to leave any of those rights unfulfilled would be a crime.”
Friday: Funeral procession and private burial
Ali’s funeral procession will travel along the street named for him, Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and past his boyhood home before heading to Cave Hill Cemetery, where he will be buried. City officials are encouraging residents to line the streets to greet the procession as it passes.
This service will be the main public celebration of Ali’s life, to be held Friday afternoon at the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The event will feature readings from the Quran, remarks from leaders from other faiths, eulogies from Crystal, Gumbel and Clinton and a poetry reading by Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, also will read a statement from the President. Obama cannot attend, because the service conflicts with his daughter Malia’s high school graduation, Gunnell said.
Ali’s widow, Lonnie, has spoken with Obama on the phone, and she “has appreciated his kind words and condolences,” Gunnell said.
The city is largely giving itself over to the memorial service, offering free bus rides to ticketholders, urging downtown businesses to use common sense when deciding whether to open and imploring residents to offer a heaping slice of Southern hospitality to the throngs of out-of-towners.
The police department is calling on some off-duty personnel to help, and the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has lined up about 1,000 volunteers, its director said.