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Muhammad Ali scripted funeral plans in exacting detail in The Book

Published 06/06/2016

A pedestrian passes a mural of Muhammad Ali painted on the side of a building in Louisville, Kentucky (AP)
A pedestrian passes a mural of Muhammad Ali painted on the side of a building in Louisville, Kentucky (AP)

Muhammad Ali and his innermost circle planned in exacting detail how he wished to say goodbye in a document that grew so thick they began calling it The Book .

"The message that we'll be sending out is not our message - this was really designed by the champ himself," said Timothy Gianotti, as Islamic studies scholar who helped for years to plan the services.

"The love and the reverence and the inclusivity that we're going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message to the people of planet earth."

The 74-year-old three-time heavyweight champion wanted the memorial service in an arena. He wanted multiple religions to have a voice while honouring the traditions of his Muslim faith. And he wanted ordinary fans to attend, not just VIPs.

He was never downcast when talking about his death, said Bob Gunnell, an Ali family spokesman.

He recalled Ali's own words during meetings planning the funeral: "It's okay. We're here to do the job the way I want it. It's fine."

The final revisions were made days before Ali died on Friday at an Arizona hospital, with his family by his side.

For years, the plan was to have Ali's body lie in repose at the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr Gunnell said. That tribute was dropped at the last minute because his wife, Lonnie, worried it would cause the centre to be shut down, and knew people would want to gather there in grief.

In its place, a miles-long procession was added that will carry Ali's body across his beloved home town. It will drive past the museum built in his honour, along the boulevard named after him and through the neighbourhood where he grew up, raced bikes and shadowboxed through the street.

In a city accustomed to capturing the world's attention for just two minutes during the Kentucky Derby each year, Ali's memorial service on Friday looms as the most historic event in Louisville's history.

Former presidents, heads of nations from around the globe, film stars and sports greats will descend upon Louisville to pay final respects to The Louisville Lip.

"It's been a really bittersweet time for our city," mayor Greg Fischer said. "We've all been dreading the passing of the champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come. It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves."

Former US president Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral at the KFC Yum! Centre, where the 15,000 seats are likely to be filled.

Other speakers will include representatives of multiple faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism and Catholicism. They will be followed by Ali's wife, daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal, sports presenter Bryant Gumbel, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The day before his star-studded funeral, members of Ali's Islamic faith will get their chance to say a traditional goodbye to Ali. A Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral service, will be held at Freedom Hall in Louisville at noon on Thursday, Mr Gunnell said. It will be open to all.

They chose the venue because it seats 18,000 and holds historical significance for the home town hero. Ali fought, and won, his first professional fight there in 1960.

Mr Gianotti said the Muslim funeral service was "critically important for the global Muslim community to say goodbye to their beloved champ".

The inner circle that helped the Alis with funeral preparations included his lawyer and a business associate, Mr Gunnell said. The group presented The Book - about 2in thick with funeral details - to Ali in 2010, he said.

"Muhammad, over the course of about a week, went through the entire plan and signed it and certified it and approved it," Mr Gunnell said.

Ali's burial will be in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, the final resting place for many of the city's most prominent citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries. The luminaries include Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders' granite memorial features a bust of the goateed entrepreneur.

Ali's gravesite will be far more subdued, in contrast to his oversized personality and life. A modest marker, in accordance with Muslim tradition, is planned, his lawyer Ron Tweel said. He would not say what words will be inscribed on the marker.

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