Senior writer Tom Junod notes that after visiting Muldoon Memorials in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this year, he knew he would be writing a story about the intimate details of laying Muhammad Ali to rest. “The Greatest, At Rest,” featured in ESPN The Magazine’s “World Fame 100” issue appears on newsstands today.
Can you take readers through how the story came together?
After I visited Muldoon, I proceeded directly to the office of Cave Hill Cemetery, where I met its CEO, Gwen Mooney. She arranged a group interview with key figures from the cemetery’s staff including groundskeepers, landscapers, security and administrators. There were eight people in all, sitting around a conference table telling their stories. I found out then that Lonnie had bought the cemetery plot many years before; I found out then that Will Smith and Mike Tyson had both had a hand in filling up Ali’s grave; I found out then many details of the day of his funeral that I wish I could have fit in the story even now. But more importantly, I discovered that they all felt a sense of ownership in the great labor of laying Muhammad Ali to rest, and that sense of ownership — almost of personal validation — is what propelled my research and my writing.
What was the most challenging aspect of this story?
Everyone I spoke to wanted their stories told. It was never a matter of me digging; it was a matter of them giving. They were so generous, and time after time I started interviews in the simplest way — “tell me what you did the week of Muhammad Ali’s funeral” — and then found myself turning off the tape recorder an hour and a half later, with the hair standing up on my arms. The challenge wasn’t getting people in; it was leaving them out. I did more than 30 interviews for this story, and when I first started writing, I tried to get them all in; indeed, felt a sense of duty to get them all in. I called my editor, Eric Neel, and said, “I got chills in almost every interview, and yet I’ve written nearly three thousand words, and there’s not a chill to be had.” He said, “Follow the chills.” So that’s what I did.
What do you hope readers will take away?
What moved me the most throughout the four months I worked on this story was the hunger I felt in people for a role in history, and the willingness to give themselves up to a force larger than themselves. For one week in June 2016, that force was represented by Muhammad Ali. He’d been sick for so many years; he’d gotten old, and so had the generation of people who’d been lucky enough to watch him fight. But his funeral turned out to be a global event; the biggest public funeral since those of Lady Di and Nelson Mandela. And that forced me to confront the essence of his greatness. He was not just a famous man. He was a famous man who made other people feel famous. And when he died people understood the extent to which they felt lifted by him, ennobled. His funeral was a response to his generosity; an outpouring of gratitude.