Organizers of Aretha Franklin’s funeral insist it will be a service, not a show. Yet the Queen of Soul’s final send-off on Friday certainly will encompass many elements, emotions and grand entrances that were hallmarks of her more than six decades on sacred and secular stages.
And it boasts a lineup of speakers and singers that would rival any of the hottest revues, past or present.
To be sure, the funeral at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple, which caps off a week of events that included high-profile public viewings and tribute concerts, comes with all-star speakers and performers. Among those offering words will be former President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Smokey Robinson. Songs will be provided by Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Faith Hill, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan and more.
The street outside Greater Grace was filled Friday morning with pink Cadillacs — a nod to Franklin’s funky ’80s tune, “Freeway of Love,” which prominently featured the car in the lyrics and video. Her casket was carried to the church in a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse that also took Franklin’s father, legendary minister C.L. Franklin, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to their final resting places at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the singer will join them.
Hundreds of fans lined up near the venue before dawn for an opportunity to get into the funeral.
Franklin’s body arrived more than two hours before the service was scheduled to start. She was dressed in a sparkling full-length gold dress with sequined heels for her final outfit — the fourth outfit Franklin has worn during a week of events leading up to her funeral.
Floral arrangements from such singers as Barbra Streisand, Sam Moore and Mariah Carey and the family of Otis Redding, whose “Respect” Franklin transformed and made her signature song, were set up in a hallway outside the sanctuary. Moore’s arrangement included a card that read, “You know I always adored and loved you to bits and pieces … Even when we would fuss.”
Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace knows well of the boldface guest list and surrounding pomp and circumstance, but he has a higher mission in mind for the service that may well exceed five hours.
“It is my goal and my aim to ensure that people leave here with some kind of spiritual awakening,” Ellis said. “This is not a concert, this is not a show, this is not an awards production. This is a real life that has been lived, that a person regardless of how famous she became no matter how many people she touched around the world, she still could not escape death. And hopefully, a lot of people here with money and fame and influence and friends and notoriety and wealth, hopefully they will think of their mortality and say there is something bigger than fame, there is something bigger than Hollywood, something bigger than being a recording artist and selling gold albums or what have you.”
Of course, some get-down and lift-up need not be mutually exclusive.
“I really believe that this … is going to be an eye-opening experience for everybody in the world watching,” said gospel artist Marvin Sapp, also among the scheduled performers. “We really celebrate because we really recognize that those we call the dearly departed, they wouldn’t want for us to cry and be sad and sorrowful. But they would want us to celebrate their lives because they transitioned from this life to a better one.”
Sapp wouldn’t reveal what he will perform Friday, but said every song is one picked out by Franklin. Robinson also didn’t share what he will say, but that’s for a different reason.
“I do not plan anything (with) someone I love like that,” Robinson, a Motown great who grew up with Franklin, told The Associated Press. “I love her. She was my longest friend.”
Robinson said he will just make it “personal,” since he remained close with Franklin until the end. He said they “talked all the time,” the last just a couple weeks before she became too ill to speak.
“We saw all of our other close friends go,” Robinson said. “We used to talk about that — we saw a lot of soldiers go.”
Amid the sadness of these days, Robinson can find uplift — and believes Franklin’s legacy is secure. A new generation of singers like Grande who are inspired by the late Queen of Soul is just the beginning.
“There are some girls who haven’t been born yet … who will be inspired by Aretha,” he said.
Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, told the AP she started putting thoughts to paper about events earlier this year as her aunt’s health failed. Since Franklin’s Aug. 16 death at 76, Owens said a close group she described as “Aretha’s angels” have “worked tirelessly” and have been guided by a single question: “What would Aretha want?”
“After all she gave to the world, I felt we needed to give her an appropriate send-off that would match her legacy,” Owens said.