When you approach the main entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery, the security guard who greets you immediately knows why you’re there.
“I’ll bet you’re looking for Ali,” he said with a smile.
You confess. You’re here to visit the champ. Muhammad Ali was buried here June 10 in a private ceremony. Ever since, there has been a steady stream of traffic as men, women and children from all over the country – and all over the world – have come to pay their respects to Louisville’s most famous son.
The security guard estimates that after the burial, there have been as many as 4,000-5,000 people at any given moment inside Cave Hill. This particular Saturday morning, it’s not as busy but the well-wishes keep coming.
Colonel Harland Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, used to be the most famous of the 135,000-plus buried on the 296-acre cemetery. On any given day, still, at least two or three people ask for the location of Sanders’ grave.
Founded in 1848, Cave Hill Cemetery is Louisville’s most prestigious final resting place. Along with Sanders and Ali, another permanent resident is Revolutionary War Brigadier General George Rogers Clark. According to Louisville Business First, the average price for a funeral is Kentucky is over $6,000. At Cave Hill, a two-grave plot alone will run roughly $14,000, which doesn’t include the casket.
When Cave Hill was founded, it was considered a good rural area to bury many who had died from communicable diseases that were prevalent at the time. Then it was known as the “City of the Dead.” Over 200 Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War are interred there.
Now, that same area is near one of the busiest areas in Louisville.
Cave Hill is a vast garden-style cemetery with 16 miles of roads, five lakes and a quarry. The landscape is lovely, with over 500 different types of trees and shrubs and waterfowl including ducks, swans and geese. Sometimes, the birds will hold up traffic as they cross the road.
Cave Hill seems like a place from another time. You walk by Victorian-era graves that are so old that the markers are illegible. Some simply say “Mother” or “Father” and one interesting headstone is inscribed at the top with “Fell Asleep” prompting so many seemingly unanswerable questions.
It’s about a mile walk from the gate house to Ali’s gravesite. Most people drive into Cave Hill, but it’s a pleasant day. The security guard directs you to follow the white line in the road and look for yellow arrows on the ground that will point you in the right direction.
After walking down the main road, a right and then a hard left, you see a small gathering. This must be the place. Ali’s gravesite is in Section U, right along the road but away from a cluster of other graves. For now, there is no headstone. You could easily drive right past it – even if you’re looking for it. A woman and her daughter did so, asking someone for directions without realizing they were right next to Ali’s grave.
You can see the grassy outline of the burial plot. There are a couple of carpets to allow people to walk up to the grave without damaging the lawn. There are even some water bottles, presumably in case you get parched.
The area is covered with different flowers, pictures and gifts left by visitors. Watching the gravesite from a short distance away is a police officer. The area is under 24-hour surveillance, but he said everyone has been respectful and says he isn’t aware of any incidents. Southern hospitality, indeed.
The flowers remain at the site until they wither. One bouquet has a red ribbon that says “Ali The Greatest.” The other gifts are passed along to the family. On this day, three large flags are placed next to each other: Wales, Turkey and Canada. Smaller flags also are planted in the dirt. One tiny Philippines flag has the inscription “Thrilla in Manila Oct. 1 1975 Thank You Ali.”
Other artifacts and trinkets are scattered about, including a photo of a woman with Ali and a pair of boxing gloves on top of the Wales flag.
Visitors, it seems, have came from all over the world. On this day, some of them are local, but many are from out of state. Jeff Rench was driving with his family from Central Illinois to Topsail Beach, North Carolina and decided to make a pit stop in Louisville.
“Growing up in the 70s, I remember watching with my dad when the fights used to be on TV,” Rench said. “It was a big thing. It was one of the biggest sports moments I remember as a kid.”
Bill Owens and Katie Garbarino are native Louisvillians. They were out of town the previous weekend when Ali was honored. They made it a point to quickly figure out where the gravesite will be.
“We will have friends who will be asking us ‘can you direct us?’” Owens said.
Garbarino added: “There is a lot of pride in the community for Ali.”
Kirk Bright knows Ali a little better than most. The 73-year-old said he once encountered Ali at a party. Bright said Ali jokingly tried to steal his girlfriend.
“He said ‘I’m taking her. What are you going to do about it?’” Bright recalled. “I said ‘Nothing.’ He laughed and said he was just kidding. Everybody in Louisville has some kind of Ali story.”
The young lady lived near Ali’s home. On summer evenings, sometimes they would see him. Now everyone can see Ali.
Cave Hill calls itself “Louisville’s Premiere Historical Cemetery.” It’s an appropriate final stop for The Champ. In the dedicatory address by Rev. E.P. Humphrey in 1848, he said “Youth and beauty, the strong man and the feeble, the rich and the poor, the loved one and the stranger gather here. Let the place of graves be rural and beautiful.”
For many in this town, no man was more strong and beautiful than Ali.
Boxer, activist, icon, Louisvillian.