Taking Muhammad Ali Home

More than a year ago, a chosen few brought Muhammad Ali home for the last time. This is the story of how they carried out their sacred calling.

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.

This article is originally published on ESPN.com

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