Ali chose his Cave Hill site, but location kept secret for now; security a long-term problem

The late prize-fighter and Louisville native personally picked out his Cave Hill Cemetery gravesite a decade ago, challenged only by deciding which plot would be best at the 300-acre burial grounds in the Highlands.

Muhammad Ali
Ali in 1967.

Ali will have a modest marker after his burial tomorrow, following Muslim tradition and his wish to remain humble despite his outsized life — in sharp contrast to the more ornate cemetery art on many of the other 130,000 occupied plots there. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell and Cave Hill would not say exactly where the grave will be, according to the Associated Press. But it’s certain to become a pilgrimage site for worldwide fans of the humanitarian, raising the cemetery’s already high profile — and security concerns as well. Ali will join a who’s-who of governors, business leaders and other Kentucky residents there. The most-visited grave is that of KFC founder Harland Sanders.

Ali died last Friday in Phoenix, where he lived most of the year. He was 74 and had been battling Parkinson’s disease for decades.

Cave Hill traces its history to 1846, when the mayor and city council set out to develop what soon became a “garden” cemetery, which by then was a concept gaining popularity in major U.S. cities. It’s unclear what measures will be taken to keep Ali’s grave undisturbed. Entering the cemetery isn’t easy, however; it’s surrounded by a high brick wall topped in places with razor wire, and the entry gates at Broadway and Baxter and on Grinstead Drive are monitored by security cameras and a guard. (See a map of Cave Hill.)

Securing Ali’s body has already been an issue; gossip site TMZ reported that officers with the Metro Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff were stationed outside the A.D. Porter and Sons Funeral Home, which is coordinating some of this week’s events.

Bodynap target.

At other cemeteries, guarding burial sites of celebrities has been a problem. Someone stole Charlie Chaplin’s body from his Switzerland grave and held it for ransom, the Associated Press says. Elvis Presley was first buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis in 1977, but his family moved him to his Graceland estate after three men were accused of plotting to steal it. Authorities foiled a plan to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body at Illinois’ Oak Ridge Cemetery and hold it for ransom in 1876, nine years after he died. Ultimately, his coffin was moved 17 times, mostly due to numerous reconstructions of his tomb and fears for the safety of his remains.

Celebrities’ graves can be a potentially valuable tourist attraction. In December, a Florida politician proposed moving Doors lead singer Jim Morrison‘s body to his Space Coast birthplace in December from Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, saying it would help promote the region; Morrison was buried at Lachaise in 1971. But representatives of his estate dismissed the idea.

Cave Hill Cemetery
The guarded entry.

Ali’s choice of a traditional burial runs against a recent trend favoring cremation at Cave Hill and elsewhere. A decade ago, just 3% of the internments there involved cremations. Today, the cemetery estimates the rate has soared to 37%. The statewide rate is lower: 22%, but across the U.S., it’s nearly 47%. The shift comes as average funeral costs have escalated to as much as $10,000.

At the online Final Arrangements Network, Cave Hill grave owners are offering to sell sites for up to $9,000 each. At Grave Solutions, others are asking for much less: $3,000. Cave Hill itself says availability ranges from a single site up to a 39-grave plot. (More about Cave Hill’s history. Also, here’s The Courier-Journal’s obituaries section.)

Ali’s burial during a private ceremony will be the culmination of a multi-day series of public events honoring his life, including a memorial service at the KFC Yum Center expected to draw 15,000 mourners, including former President Bill Clinton, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and other celebrities. Today at noon, some 14,000 will attend a traditional Islamic memorial service at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

Both events require free tickets for admission. Their sellout has spurred some people to offer to buy them on Craigslist for $25 and more.

KFC founder Sanders died in 1980 at Jewish Hospital. His gravesite echoes the look of the fast-food chain’s Louisville headquarters building.

Harland Sanders grave

Yum building smaller
KFC and parent Yum headquarters are at 1441 Gardiner Lane.

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