DETROIT— 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 invitation-only 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 Steve Wonder, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Faith Hill, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan and more.
The street outside Greater Grace will be lined 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 has been carried this week by 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.
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.”
Fans gathered a day early to celebrate her in the place where her faith was forged and her voice was first discovered, singing signature gospel classics like “Amazing Grace” and “Precious Lord.”
The line for the public viewing at New Bethel Baptist Church stretched several blocks — more than half a mile — Thursday afternoon. Fans wearing a variety of T-shirts bearing Franklin’s image mourned her loss with a smile. There were spontaneous bursts into song, and cheers for the Queen of Soul as they waited to enter the sanctuary.