Muhammad Ali’s Final Ride – From The Hearse Driver
Article originally published by: NYTimes
The first rose landed on the windshield of the hearse not long after the procession began on Bardstown Road.
“Aw, man,” the driver, Chase Porter, thought.
He turned on the windshield wipers. The flower smeared.
“Windshield wipers aren’t to remove flowers,” he observed.
Then there was the second flower, and the third, the fourth, and soon a cascade. Through it all, he focused on making sure the man lying in back — about two feet behind him over his right shoulder, slid into the chamber headfirst — was given a properly respectful final ride.
Porter was driving Muhammad Ali.
“Just touch it, just touch it,” spectators were saying as they reached for his vehicle, a 2016 Cadillac XTS that had been modified at a shop in Ohio to accommodate the dead. It was Hearse No. 5, part of a fleet shared by several funeral homes.
The windows were down and Porter could hear the people outside clearly. His palms sweated as he gripped the wheel. He did not want to mess this up.
But there was no holding back the tide. Soon the roses were landing inside the car, too.
“Aw, man, nothing’s going to top this,” he said at one point in the swirl of people and petals. He rolled the windows back up. And then he rolled them back down. He wanted to hear the chants: “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”), “The greatest,” “Louisville’s champ,” and simply, “Ali, Ali.”
“People had so many different ways of expressing their joy and happiness, or just sadness at the loss of the champ,” Porter later said. “And at the same time it was a celebration.”
Porter is 33, a son of Louisville, born and raised.
His family owns A. D. Porter & Sons, the funeral parlor that prepared Ali’s body and handled the final arrangements, working closely with the Ali family. The funeral home had buried Ali’s mother and father, too, and the parents of Ali’s wife, Lonnie.
This was, of course, their biggest job, with many of the arrangements having been specified by Ali before he died.
Ultimately it fell to Porter, accompanied by Ron Price, another funeral home employee, riding in the passenger seat, to perform a duty prosaic and profound.
From the time he started driving, Porter has helped in the family business, even while working for several years as a middle-school English and history teacher. He has worked full time at the funeral home since last year, after a sister died, while also helping coach football at a local high school.
On the day of the funeral, June 10, he rose at 5 a.m. and put on a black suit and red tie, an ensemble he had coordinated with Price. The hearse had been washed and waxed Thursday, after a Muslim prayer service for Ali.
By 7:45 a.m., Porter was ready to go, waiting for the procession to begin.
Nearly three hours later, Ali’s mahogany coffin was placed in the back on what they call the table, an acrylic platform, and the procession finally pulled out of the funeral home. “Once everything was going,” Porter said, “it was like time stood still.”
It stood still for a long time. For two hours, the procession rolled along a course the Ali family and the police had laid out. An S.U.V. with cameramen in back drove in front of the hearse, delivering a live video stream around the world.
Friends of Porter’s and Price’s began calling. They wanted to know where the hearse was going.
Porter’s palms kept sweating.
Porter never met Ali and is too young to have seen him fight live. But he has watched internet videos of the bouts and admires how Ali never forgot his hometown, where signs and banners proclaiming him the Greatest were still hanging nearly two weeks after they were put up for the funeral.
Now, Porter was seeing Louisville the way Ali wanted the world to see it.
At the first turn out of the funeral home parking lot came the first swarm of people, and the roses.
“I kept thinking, I hope that I don’t have to stop and back up to negotiate a turn in the hearse,” he said.
A brief respite came on an expressway, and then later on Grand Avenue, in Ali’s neighborhood, where his boyhood home, a pink clapboard house, stands at No. 3302.
Along the way, Porter noticed that vacant lots had been mowed. Despite all the jostling in the big crowds, everything seemed peaceful. Porter knows Louisville as a college sports town, torn between the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats. “You bleed blue or you bleed red,” he said.
“So it was interesting to see, for a situation like Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession, where everybody was just together,” he said. “You didn’t see any division.”
Ali’s neighborhood sparkled.
The Ali family lived on the block from 1947 to 1961, and his former home is now a museum. Some in the neighborhood still remember what it was like when Ali was growing up here.
“We used to go down there, we was little, and he would tell you scary stories,” said Linda Calloway, now 63, at a house a few doors down. “Because, you know, he loved kids.”
At a house at the end of the block, Sharon Hill, now 63, recalled Ali’s visits back to the neighborhood.
“He would stop and hug everybody and give them a kiss,” Hill said. “Yes, he never forgot Louisville and he never forgot his neighborhood. Never.”
Some of the surrounding blocks have declined, but Ali’s block remains well kempt and quiet.
It was anything but quiet, however, as the procession passed. By that stage of the route, the crowds were so thick that police officers walked alongside the hearse, escorting it.
“At any moment that could’ve went bad,” Porter said. “And I think that people showed a lot of self-respect and love for the champ and general love for our city to put on a good representation of who Louisville is and what Muhammad Ali means to everyone here.”
Downtown, more crowds lined Broadway, a street that again put Ali on center stage.
“I mean, it’s called Broadway for a reason,” said Maj. Kelly Jones of the Louisville Metro Police Department, who worked with the family on the route.
Eventually, the procession reached its end at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private funeral service was held. Rose petals lined the path in front of the cemetery’s gates as Porter guided the hearse through. A public memorial followed at a multipurpose arena later that afternoon.
When the procession ended, Porter took Price home and drove the hearse to A. D. Porter & Sons’ downtown location. Its day was done. Porter arrived back home at about 6 p.m.
The next morning he rose again, donned a different suit and left to work another funeral.
Nobody threw flowers, nobody thronged the service. She was a 68-year-old woman who had died on June 5, two days after Ali. But Porter did his best.
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