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A royal farewell: Aretha Franklin gets a funeral fit for a Queen
DETROIT -- The project on the wall declared it "A Celebration Fit For a Queen."
As if Aretha Franklin's funeral would be anything less than that.
The Queen of Soul's life, career and enormous contributions -- to music, to the Detroit metro area, to the Civil and Women's Rights movements, to Christianity, to African-American culture and identity -- were indeed lauded over the course of an eight-hour and 15-minute ceremony on Friday, Aug. 31, at Greater Grace Temple in northeast Detroit. The sanctuary was mostly filled with friends, family, invited guests and international media, as well as fans lucky enough to score general public admission on Friday morning. The street outside, meanwhile, was lined with fans watching the livestreams and broadcasts -- as well as scores of pink Cadillacs, made famous in Franklin's 1985 hit "Freeway of Love," which convened as part of the processional to Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, which Franklin was buried on Friday evening.
The service start was delayed about an hour and a half, but Greater Grace Bishop Charles H. Ellis III noted that, "I took a little time to get in her, but I believe the Queen wouldn’t have had it any other way." He also warned at the outset that, "It's going to be a lengthy service. You cannot celebrate the life of an icon in just a couple of hours.
That proved true as an array of speakers -- from politicians to longtime personal friends -- mourned, praised and paid tribute to Franklin amidst some 20 musical tributes by Steve Wonder, Faith Hill, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande and gospel heroes such as Detroit's Clark Sisters, Marvin Sapp and more. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who attended with wife Hilary and acknowledged himself a Franklin "groupie," said that Franklin "took this massive talent and the perfect culture that raised her and became the composer of her own life's song -- and what a song it was."
Clinton also recalled visiting with Franklin last November in New York when she made her final performance at an Elton John AIDS Foundation fundraiser. Noting that it was clear Franklin's health was waning, he said that two exchanged jokes and Franklin -- who passed away Aug. 16 at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer -- told him, "Look at me. I finally got skinny!" Clinton also acknowledged Franklin's famous fashion consciousness, confessing that as he looked at the open casket before the ceremony he couldn't help thinking, "I wonder what my friend has on today?"
The overall theme of the day was that Franklin was a universal, once-in-a-lifetime talent who would be missed but who's legacy will endure. "When Aretha Franklin sang...something shifted in the atmosphere," filmmaker Tyler Perry said. "I'm grateful to God we had the good fortune to be on this planet at the same time as Aretha Franklin." Franklin friend and former Detroit City Council President Joanne Watson declared her "the world's queen, the quintessential epitome of the greatness and authority of the city of Detroit," while Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder reminded the audience that Franklin's voice had been designated a state national resource back in 1980.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and current City Council President Brenda Jones, meanwhile, announced an intent to rename the city's Chene Park, which also houses a concert amphitheater, as Aretha Franklin Park. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence said that proposals had been made in both the U.S. House and Senate to award Franklin a Congressional Gold Medal.
Before his performance near the end of the ceremony, Wonder added that, "The reason we're here today is because of...how much we love this woman, this blessing from God that was given to us...The greatest gift your given in life itself is love. We can talk about all the things that are wrong, and there are many, but the only thing that can deliver us is love...Truly it is our love that will make things better. That is what Aretha sang about."
Some of the warmest and most surprising moments during the ceremony were the extremely personal stories. Motown star Smokey Robinson talked about meeting Franklin when he was eight years old and becoming fast and lifelong friends; Speaking directly to Aretha he said that "I didn't know especially this soon that I was going to be having to say goodbye to you, farewell before singing a bit of "Really Gonna Miss You" from "The Temptations" miniseries and blowing a kiss to Franklin's gold-plated casket.
Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas said that Franklin and her family were among the first people he met when he came to the area and that she treated him as one of her own. "They took care of me through some very tough times" as he adjusted to his early celebrity, Thomas said. He also spoke about getting a kick out of seeing his mother, who introduced him to Franklin's music, sitting between her and Wonder at Pistons games.
McDonald's franchise owner Ron Moten, a friend and former neighbor, spoke about Franklin calling him to check on her house late at night, then playing piano and singing in her pajamas until the wee hours. He also told a story about asking Franklin to visit his mother in an assisted living facility for her 90th birthday; After being initially non-committal, Franklin showed up with a full band and performed for an hour, culminating with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Actress Cicely Tyson galvanized the proceedings with a dramatic and heartfelt revision of the late Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "When Malindy Sings," inserting Franklin's name in the appropriate places. That was every bit as captivating as any of the musical performances, the best of which included Khan's rendition of "Going Up Yonder" (with the lyrics taped to her handheld fan), Grande's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (though her short black dress caused a bit of scuttlebutt), Sapp's "Perfect Peace," Audrey DuBois Harris' "Great Is They Faithfulness, Shirley Caesar's roof-raising "How I Got Over" and Wonder's "Always" with help from Angie Stone, Shirley Murdoch and others.
Franklin's son Edward sang a moving version of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me," while Jennifer Hudson, hand-picked by Franklin to star in a biopic that was in motion at the time of her death, delivered an emotive "Amazing Grace." Jennifer Holliday closed the service with "Climbing Higher Mountains" as Franklin's casket was rolled out of the sanctuary.
The ceremony had a few political moments as well. The Rev. Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson both took President Donald Trump to task for tweeting about how Franklin had "worked for me," performing at his casino in Atlantic City. "She used to perform for you. She worked for us," Sharpton declared. "Aretha never took orders from nobody but God." Chicago Rev. Donald L. Parsons, a friend of Franklin's since he spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, note how rare it was to have so many black Christian clergy in one place and called for a summit before the November election to unify and "send people to the polls." Wonder also took a subtle shot, noting that part of Franklin's legacy is that "we need to make love great again."
And in his lengthy and provocative eulogy, Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. from Atlanta said the messages of Franklin's music and life should be used to strengthen black families and curb violence within the black community. "How can we take this iconic stature of Aretha Franklin, this queen of soul...and bring about real, true change in this world today," Williams said. "You can hear the Queen echoing in the wind -- something must be done."
But perhaps no truer words were spoken during the day than when Sharpton said that "We don't all agree on everything, but we agree on Aretha." The Queen may be gone, but, as was made clear on Friday, she will never be forgotten.
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