Family, friends and the many admirers of Aretha Franklin packed Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple on Friday to celebrate the life, legacy and music of the “Queen of Soul.”
It was a service fit for the Queen, who died earlier this month at the age of 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The funeral was full of mourning and laughter, of rousing gospel music and soulful hymns befitting of the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who won 18 Grammys and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honors.
Singers like Ariana Grande, Faith Hill, the Clark Sisters, Chaka Khan, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor, Jennifer Hudson and Stevie Wonder rallied funeralgoers and brought them to their feet to dance and sing with Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “I’m Going Up Yonder,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “Amazing Grace,” to name a few.
Stevie Wonder gave the last performance before Franklin’s family exited the church. Whipping out his harmonica, Wonder played a musical rendition of the “Lord’s Prayer.”
“Were it not for God’s goodness, God’s greatness, we would’ve never known the queen of soul,” Wonder said after finishing with the harmonica. He ended with his 1976 song “As,” which brought people to their feet.
Spoken tributes and remembrances from religious and political leaders underlined the influence of a woman who stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement, with her music as a frequent anthem.
Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and former US Attorney General Eric Holder were among those who came to pay their respects and offer kind words and remembrances.
Former President Bill Clinton fondly recalled the last time he saw Franklin, when she greeted him with, “How you doing, baby?”
It was a star-studded occasion, but it wasn’t about who was or wasn’t famous. Her former neighbor, Ron Moten, told the story of the time his friend Aretha gave a concert at his mother’s assisted living facility on her 90th birthday.
And fans around the world collectively followed the funeral for more than six hours, using the hashtag #ArethaHomegoing.
All those gathered had come to say their last goodbyes to a woman and an artist who profoundly impacted each of them, the city of Detroit and the world. “She gave us pride,” Sharpton said during his remembrance. “And she gave us a regal bar to reach, and that’s why we’re all here.
“We don’t all agree on everything,” he said. “But we agree on Aretha.”
Presidents pay homage to the ‘Queen of Soul’
Sharpton read a letter from former President Barack Obama, who honored Franklin’s legacy and her impact on the country.
“In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied those most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation,” Obama wrote.
“While the music she made captured some of our deepest human desires, namely affection and respect, and through her voice, her own voice, Aretha lifted those of millions, empowering and inspiring the vulnerable, the downtrodden, and everyone who may have just needed a little love.”
Clinton brought a smile to attendees’ faces with a touching and humorous tribute, recognizing both Franklin’s grace and strength, and professing his admiration for the singer and her resolve.
“This woman got us all here in these seats today, not because she had this breathtaking talent, which she did … but because she lived with courage, not without fear, but overcoming her fears.
“She lived with faith,” he continued, “not without failure but overcoming her failures. She lived with power, not without weakness, but overcoming her weaknesses.”
A letter from President George W. Bush was also read, in which he called Franklin a “woman of achievement with a deep character and loving heart.”
A few speakers took jabs at President Donald Trump throughout the day. Sharpton criticized the President for saying after Franklin’s death that she had “worked for me on numerous occasions.”
“No,” Sharpton said, “she used to perform for you. She worked for us.”
And Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown professor who spoke at the funeral, slammed Trump for the same remark.
“She worked above you,” Dyson said. “She worked beyond you. Get your preposition right.”
‘It’s just my grandma’
Mourners began filling the church early Friday, while Franklin’s fans and dozens of pink Cadillac owners lined up outside, a tribute to the singer’s 1985 hit “Freeway of Love” in which she sang, “We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love in my pink Cadillac.”
Franklin’s open casket was placed at the front of the church as mourners streamed by in advance of the service. As they passed, they saw the singer’s body dressed all in gold, with a long sequin gown and high heels to match her gleaming gold casket.
Projected on the walls were the words “A Celebration Fit for the Queen.”
The choir greeted attendees who took their seats in the pews as the processional began, and before long many were on their feet, singing and clapping along. The casket was closed at the end of the lengthy processional after the singer’s family and friends had said goodbye, and as the choir sang, “Jesus, the Light of the World.”
“Walk in the light,” the singers proclaimed as the casket lid was lowered, “the beautiful light. Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”
Early in the service, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, who was officiating, asked the congregation to stand and applaud Franklin’s family.
“This family has shared their mother, their grandmother, their aunt, their cousin with the entire world,” Ellis said. “Let us all stand and thank them for sharing her with us.”
Among the family was Franklin’s granddaughter Victorie Franklin, who recalled the woman behind the legendary performer.
“I remember when I was a kid people used to always ask me, ‘What does it feel like to be Aretha Franklin’s granddaughter?'” she said. “I would always shrug my shoulders and go, ‘I don’t know. It’s just my grandma.'”
“Nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sings,” she added. “Her voice made you feel something. You felt every word, every note, every emotion in the songs she sang. Her voice brought peace.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan took to the pulpit and said he wanted to rename the city’s Chene Park after Franklin, and that he was sending a proposal to the City Council to do so.
“Our beautiful waterfront jewel will be Aretha Franklin Park,” he said, “and when performers from generations to come from around the world come here, they will be reminded they are performing at the home of the ‘Queen of Soul.”
‘She kept right on singing’
When Rev. Jesse Jackson finally stood up to speak, nearly two hours later than originally scheduled, he highlighted Franklin’s impact on the civil rights movement, and how it affected her in turn.
“She had money and could not buy ice cream, had a car and could not stop to buy gasoline,” Jackson said. “Aretha came out of the bowels of our struggle.”
Jackson recalled how Franklin and Harry Belafonte went on tour to help raise funds for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement. While she was on stage in Houston, Jackson said, tear gas was pumped into the room, forcing the evacuation of the building. “She kept right on singing,” he said.
Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. said that Franklin once clashed with her father because he objected to her helping activist Angela Davis get out of jail. “She said, ‘Daddy, she is a black woman who had nobody to help her. Period,” Williams recalled.
Service honored Franklin’s roots
Franklin’s niece, Sabrina Owens, told CNN the funeral service was designed to recognize Franklin’s gospel roots and her love of the church.
“We knew we wanted to have certain gospel artists like the Williams Brothers and Pastor Shirley Caesar,” Owens said. “And there were other people who called us wanting to participate.”
Her family wanted to keep the funeral service private to those closest to Franklin — though it was being streamed and portions broadcast by major networks — but worked to provide the singer’s fans an opportunity to say goodbye this week, Owens said.
Viewings earlier this week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and at Franklin’s childhood parish, New Bethel Baptist Church, as well as an all-star tribute concert Thursday night, were all planned with the public in mind.
Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons player and a friend of Franklin’s, told CNN he could hardly believe it was time to say goodbye.
“Even though you knew over the last couple of months that she was sick and you knew this day was coming and you thought you would be prepared for it — but now that it’s here it really is overwhelming,” he said.
Shirley Caesar, the famous gospel singer and another friend of Franklin’s, agreed.
“I’ve been wishing and hoping that I will wake up and that this is just a dream,” she said.