Aretha Franklin’s Funeral Fashion Showed Us How to Mourn

The Queen of Soul required four days of mourning. The public viewing began on Tuesday. Aretha Franklin lay in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, in Detroit, a setting that befitted the transition occurring: the passage of the living into the pantheon of history. How should we assist her in her journey? How should we behave in our distress? Franklin instructed us through her fashion. The first day, she wore the bright crimson of Delta Sigma Theta, the sorority in which she was an honorary sister. Her dress was tea-length, made of light fabrics—chiffon and lace—her shoes five-inch Christian Louboutin heels. It was a look primed for a stage on a sublime plane, the red a reminder of sorrow’s vitality. The visitors who lined up before dawn to behold her might have closed their eyes and imagined Franklin before a piano, the fur coat dropped one last time. On the second and third day of visitation, she wore more diva regalia, and more heels, in blue and rose-gold, respectively. As in life, in death Franklin was directing the mourners to receive her as a woman of power.

The magnitude of that power—artistic, political, communal, familial—was manifest at her homegoing, “A Celebration Fit for the Queen,” held on Friday at the Greater Grace Temple. More than a hundred pink Cadillacs surrounded Greater Grace, where Franklin sang at the funeral of Rosa Parks, in 2005. Franklin’s body was carried to and from the megachurch in a vintage 1940 hearse that carried Parks then and, in 1984, Aretha’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin. The schedule had said five hours, but the service began around eleven, an hour or so late, and did not end until the sun was near to setting. The ceremony was live-streamed worldwide, and a portion of this nation’s populace could not focus on whatever work it had; the passing of the great matriarch was too momentous. The ritual was spectacularly organized, featuring serenades by superstars of pop and gospel, remembrances by dignitaries and heads of state, and intimate expressions of tenderness by family and friends. But rawness, an intense sense of unmooring, filled the room, too.

Song can communicate elements of mourning—desperation, gratitude—that speech cannot adequately confess. Edward Franklin, one of Aretha’s sons, trembled as he sang Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” to his mother. The emotion was especially palpable in the fellow-musicians who bid their sister, and their mentor, goodbye, some through the vessel of her own song. Aretha Franklin was a stalwart of an era whose leaders are leaving us one by one. “I didn’t know, especially this soon, that I was going to have to say goodbye to you,” Smokey Robinson, who grew up down the block from Franklin, in Detroit, said during his remembrance. “We talked about it many times that we’re the two that were left from all our neighborhood friends.” Beneath his signature sunglasses, Ronald Isley cried as he sang, with stunning tenderness, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” A giant of black cinema, Cicely Tyson, shrouded under a magnificently imposing hat, did not sing but did invoke the spiritual effect of Franklin’s instrument, delivering a reworked version of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poem “When Malindy Sings.” Steadied by the lyrics to Walter Hawkins’s “Goin’ Up Yonder” printed on a blue fan, Chaka Khan let the turbulence one feels in loss take her over, extending the song for nearly ten minutes. “I hope she don’t mind—I don’t think she would—but I think I’m gonna come out my shoes,” Fantasia Barrino said, before she delivered an exultant rendition of the version of “Precious Lord” that Franklin sang on her 1972 album, “Amazing Grace,” and performed at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral, that same year. Jennifer Hudson, whom Franklin handpicked to play her in a future bio-pic, thundered “Amazing Grace.”

Stevie Wonder left us breathless. He came onstage after a moment of confusion, when Franklin’s official eulogist, the Reverend Jasper Williams, Jr., an old-school whooping preacher who had studied under C. L. Franklin, spoke. Full of rowdy fire, Williams admonished the youth of black America, saying that a single black woman could not properly raise a young black man, among other conservative messages that seemed at odds with the vision that Franklin had for the spread of the black Church. The dissonance within the institution was deafening in that moment. But then Wonder came in with force, returning the service to Aretha. Assisted by Angie Stone, Jenifer Lewis, Shirley Murdock, and Dottie Peoples, he sang two secular songs—Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me” and his masterpiece, “As.” His rebuke was soft but strong; he encouraged us to remember that Franklin stood for righteous love.

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