Thousands packed a Detroit church to pay respects to Aretha Franklin, the musical giant whose legacy was evident in several hours of tributes in song and speeches.
They laid Aretha Franklin to rest with a funeral fit for a Queen.
A week of tributes and public mourning — which included a massive concert, tributes from some of the nation’s most prominent public figures and four final, glorious outfit changes — ended with a daylong funeral Friday in Detroit, the vibrantly musical city that launched her career and remained her home for much of her life.
“The secret of her greatness was she took this massive talent and this perfect culture that raised her, and she decided to be the composer of her own life’s song,” former President Bill Clinton said. “And what a song it turned out to be.”
Franklin, 76, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer, inspired an eight-hour send-off that reflected the impact of her career. She was interred Friday night in a mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit. Woodlawn is also home to the graves of Franklin’s father, other relatives and civil-rights icon Rosa Parks.
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“It took a little time to get in here, but I believe the Queen wouldn’t have had it any other way,” said Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple, in his welcome to mourners.
The ceremony, a traditional “homegoing” event at the church that has room for 4,000 people, underscored Franklin’s roots in the Baptist church and in black culture.
The Rev. Al Sharpton called Franklin a “civil-rights activist and freedom fighter.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said her “status as a queen, unlike others who inherit a title … was earned.”
“She was classy enough to sing on the most prominent stages in the world,” said Bishop T.D. Jakes, “but she was homegirl enough to make potato salad and fry some chicken. In a class all by herself.”
Two other former presidents — Barack Obama and George W. Bush — sent remarks that were read. The mayor of Detroit said “one of her favorite places in the world,” Chene Park, would be renamed after Franklin.
The funeral for such a singular figure in American popular culture — who got standing ovations from world leaders, pinch-hit for renowned opera singers and gave activists demanding equal rights an anthem — could have easily turned into a massive show-business production.
And while celebrities filled the pews and provided electrifying performances, the homegoing was mostly a joyful church service, with gospel tributes, preaching and many opportunities to catch the Holy Spirit.
“If Ms. Franklin can dance on the stage, somebody ought to be able to dance in the church,” said Ellis. “We’re here to lift up this family. Put a smile on their face.”
Or, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “This is a celebration, but not a party.”
Prayers and causes
The service ran several hours over schedule. All the while, Franklin laid in a gold-plated casket made of bronze and the lining embroidered with her name and “Queen of Soul” title, according to the Detroit Free Press. The very same 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse that carried her father and Parks at their funerals transported Franklin to the Greater Grace Temple.
Franklin was wearing a full-length, gold-sequined gown and matching sequined Christian Louboutin heels with the signature bright-red soles, the final of four outfits she wore throughout the week’s public viewings.
Much of the music at the service reflected her church roots and the impact she had on fellow musicians, with songs performed by Chaka Khan (“Going Up Yonder”); Faith Hill (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), Ron Isley, Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande (“You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman”); and Fantasia (“Take My Hand Precious Lord”). Toward the end of the ceremony, Jennifer Hudson brought the room to its feet with “Amazing Grace.”
Outside the church, more than 100 pink Cadillacs lined up, after having served as part of Franklin’s early-morning funeral procession.
“Her song, the pink Cadillac song, meant so much to us, we use it at every event,” said Joy Bailey Greff, a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman. She drove her pink Cadillac SUV for 14 hours from Alabama to be part of the procession. “She’s just an icon, a legend, and it’s an honor to just be part of something like this and to be able to give back after she’s given so much to people.”
Franklin grew up surrounded by civil-rights activists and world-class musicians, including her father, famed pastor C.L. Franklin. So some of the nation’s most well-known ministers flocked to Detroit, to pray for her family and read from Scripture.
Shirley Caesar and rising gospel singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard sang “How I Got Over,” and later, Bishop Paul Morton and Yolanda Adams sang “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” They are two songs Franklin famously sang on her 1972 “Amazing Grace” album, the best-selling live gospel album ever.
The service shifted smoothly from spiritual themes to more earthly concerns, including the social and political causes Franklin championed.
Jackson used his remembrances to urge voter participation. Greg Mathis, the retired judge of courtroom-reality-TV fame, recalled how he and Franklin spoke of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis during their last conversation. The Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. used his eulogy to hold forth on African-American parenting and “black-on-black crime.” Many preached about how Franklin advocated for the poor and downtrodden.
Several speakers also rebuked President Donald Trump, who in paying tribute to Franklin, said she “worked for me,” apparently an oblique reference to the time she performed at one of his casinos. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s response: “No, she used to perform for you. She worked for us.”
Scholar Michael Eric Dyson also weighed in: “She ain’t work for you. She worked above you. She worked beyond you. Get your preposition right. Don’t sully the memory of our great queen.”
An “Aretha groupie”
Again and again, the luminaries who took the stage returned to the potent effect of Franklin’s music on their lives. By the time Bill Clinton graduated from college in 1968, Franklin had crossed over from gospel to soul — turning Otis Redding’s “Respect” into an anthem of her own and a rallying cry for African Americans and women across the country — and the future president was an “Aretha groupie,” he said.
Decades later, he recalled, he asked Franklin to sing for his 1993 inauguration and later for the emperor and empress of Japan. “I thought it might loosen them up a little,” he joked.
For all Franklin’s world travels, Detroit — where she came of age in the creative hotbed of an R&B scene that would also launch Motown Records — remained a touchstone. Smokey Robinson wasn’t just a show-business colleague, he was a childhood friend from the neighborhood, and so he remained.
“I didn’t know, especially this soon, that I would have to be saying goodbye to you,” he said. “I know you’re up there, and you’re celebrating with your family and all our neighborhood friends who have gone. And you’re going to be one of the featured voices in the choir of angels, because you’d have to be.”
Wonder, also a longtime friend, gave the final musical performance at the service with a powerful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” and “As.”
“We can talk about all the things that are wrong,” he said, “and there are many, but the only thing that can deliver us is love. So what needs to happen today, not only in this nation, but throughout the world, is that we need to make love great again. Because black lives do matter.”