Funerals are a time for those still living to grieve and to reflect on and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died.
Behind the scenes are businesses who help organize the day and ensure that it proceeds smoothly. Typically, that includes a florist, a funeral home and maybe a limousine rental company. For “The Greatest of All Time,” his final stop in Louisville requires the coordination of more than a dozen businesses and organizations, years of planning and an untold number of man hours.
“Our team has worked on this, helping to put together the plan of action for this event with the Alis, so that everything is done to Muhammad’s wishes,” said Danielle Rudy Davis, trendsetter at Boxcar PR. She added that holding public funeral events in Louisville and following Islamic funeral tradition “was incredibly important” to Ali.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. His condition rapidly deteriorated affecting his speech and mobility, and in the past several years, he’d made fewer public appearances.
Davis’ boss, Boxcar PR owner Bob Gunnell, has served as spokesman for the Ali family since 2009. Since the beginning of their business relationship, Gunnell was involved in making the funeral arrangements, which included tweaking aspects as time passed.
“When I first started working with them, it was a surreal experience. It was interesting, and it was something so far in the future,” Gunnell said. “Things like your own mortality come into play. What is going to happen? Will you still be working for them when this happens? Not from a selfish standpoint, you just think how much of this plan that you put together will actually survive.
“Along the way, we became friends. I have the highest regard and respect for him, and when (Ali died), I didn’t know how I would feel,” he continued. “It was a tough weekend. It was much tougher than I thought it would be for me personally.”
Now that Ali has died, the wheels of the plan that the family, Gunnell and others crafted are in motion.
“It’s really just putting the plan into place. There is only so much you can do before he passed away,” Davis said. “We never knew if this would take place when (Barack) Obama was in office and if he’d attend. …That is kind of where we are at now, making sure the people that Muhammad and Lonnie (Ali) wanted at the funeral and who want to attend are there.”
There is still no word from the White House on whether Obama will make the trip to Louisville. The Dalai Lama, who was rumored to be coming, will be in India and has sent his condolences to the Ali family.
Other dignitaries including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and King Abdullah of Jordan plan to attend, and others likely will be announced later this week.
J Wagner Group, which is most well known for its Kentucky Derby fêtes, is working on logistics and event planning in partnership with Boxcar PR as well as helping distribute the 15,500 tickets available to the public. Joey Wagner, owner of J Wagner Group, also serves in the role of gamechanger at the public relations firm.
“It’s the biggest event I’ve ever produced,” Wagner said. “It’s been a lot of hard work. We’ve got a lot of moving parts.”
Boxcar PR and J Wagner Group alone have roughly two dozen people working on logistics and other tasks related to Ali’s funeral services this week, and Gunnell was unable to quantify how many people have been involved in the funeral arrangements over the years.
“In Louisville experience, it’s bigger than any Derby party that ever happened,” Gunnell said. “As far as man hours over the decade doing this and consultation, it’s planning a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Several government organizations are involved in the preparations and staging of the prayer service and the public funeral, including Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s office; Louisville Metro Police Department; and the Kentucky State Fair Board, which owns and operates Freedom Hall where Thursday’s prayer service will be held.
As far as expenses go, the Ali family is paying for protection, transportation and other services for family members.
“The Ali family’s putting a lot of money into this effort,” Gunnell said, noting the “generosity” of the commonwealth of Kentucky and Mayor Greg Fischer, who’s been “unbelievable” making sure everything runs smoothly.
“It’s great for this city, because we get to put the best of this city on display,” he said.
When asked if the KFC Yum! Center or anyone else is donating services for the funeral or other events, Gunnell said he could not say because of non-disclosure agreements the many parties involved signed.
Chris Poynter, spokesman for the Louisville Mayor’s Office, did not have any estimates on the potential cost to the city.
“We are bringing the full resources of city government to celebrate,” he said. “We are not worrying about that yet. …A lot of it is just going to be using existing government workers and time.”
Public Works employees are working to make sure the city is clean, and PARC is handling international and national media requests for parking, he gave as examples.
“This will be one of the largest events, if not the largest event, in the city from a global perspective,” Poynter said. Calling the size and scope of Ali’s funeral “unprecedented for Louisville.”
The Yum Center will act as the venue for the funeral, and its event workers will help direct guests. A call to the Yum Center asking how many employees it would have on hand for the funeral wasn’t returned.
Louisville-based company Millennium Events and Floral is providing the decor. When IL reached out to the company Monday for information about the decorations and roughly how many man hours its workers will need to prepare for Friday, owner B.J. O’Daniel, citing a non-disclosure agreement, said she’d have to get back to IL after making sure she was allowed comment. IL has not heard back.
Gunnell later told IL that all the vendors and business involved signed non-disclosures.
“There are vendors in Louisville who have known about this plan for five and six years,” he said.
Louisville audio visual company Bluestone Productions will help with live video feed of the funeral, and the University of Louisville is lending a hand with the audio visuals at the Yum Center as well as media credentials.
“All the people who are great at what they do here in town are partners and helping make sure everything is executed here well,” Davis said.
The museum honoring the life and legacy of Ali, the Muhammad Ali Center, has served as ground zero for national media reporting on Ali’s death and the week’s events. It also has become a venue for Boxcar PR to host news conferences. The center’s website will host the livestream of the funeral, and it has offered free admission this week to all visitors, though donations are accepted.
“That is something we prepared for because we knew there’d be so much interest,” Davis said.
The Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau also has stepped up by calling on more volunteers to act as ambassadors and help visitors with questions walking around Louisville. The CVB also has posted on its website details of Friday’s funeral events and a link to the Ali Center’s website.
The bureau is directing visitors to the newly launched alilouisville.com, which talks about Ali’s humanitarian efforts, his childhood and his boxing career, as well as points people to 21 sites around the city with ties to Ali.
Web traffic to the CVB’s site has only increased slightly, Stacey Yates, the CVB’s vice president of marketing and communications, said in an email. But “our social media platforms have blown up.”
Since Ali’s death, the CVB has clocked 7,300 social media interactions — Twitter mentions, retweets, Facebook likes and shares — and it’s received more than 100 new Facebook followers since Saturday. The bureau averages one or two new followers a day, Yates said.