Aretha Franklin’s Funeral: Views From Inside the Church

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral service for Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, in Detroit. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76Aretha Franklin, Detroit, USA - 31 Aug 2018

Aretha Franklin’s funeral was as much a star-studded concert as memorial service. Here’s what you didn’t see if you saw on TV or online.

Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Befitting a woman whose influence spanned decades and genres, Aretha Franklin’s eight-hour memorial service on Friday encompassed just about everyone and everything. In the 4,000-seat Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Franklin was eulogized by former presidents, entertainment titans, and religious figures: From Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson to Clive Davis and Franklin’s grandchildren, every aspect of her life was represented.

Letters from both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were read aloud. (Franklin, wrote Obama, reflected the “very best of the American story.”) Performers ranged from Ariana Grande to Cicely Tyson, who is almost four times Grande’s age yet exhibited more spunk and energy with her theatrical reading of “When Malindy Sings” (refashioned as “When Aretha Sings”) by the vital late 19th century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The tribute was sprawling, overwhelming and musically potent.

Although the entire service was live-streamed, the viewpoint from inside the church was sometimes a bit different. Here are a few things you may not have noticed during the broadcast.

Franklin’s impact was felt before everyone even walked into the church
Seven Mile Road, the wide boulevard where the house of worship sits, was lined with families sitting on folding or beach chairs to pay their respects as limousines drove by. Two dueling Aretha T-shirt bootleggers also got into a brawl on one 7 Mile Corner. But Franklin’s influence, especially in the music world, was seen in the lobby, where massive floral arrangements from Barbra Streisand, “The Jackson Family,” Mariah Carey, the Four Tops, Tony Bennett and “The Carters” (yes, Jay-Z and Beyoncé) were on display. Hard to imagine too many performers who would be saluted by such a variety of peers.

Gospel went over better than pop
It may not have been easy to tell on TV or online, but sacred music electrified the thousands inside Greater Grace Temple more than the pop star appearances. Faith Hill, one of the first performers of the day, tackled the Christian hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and Ariana Grande offered up a relatively reined-in rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”

While those performances were respectfully received, it was the spiritual numbers that repeatedly brought the crowd to its collective feet. Local gospel heroines the Clark Sisters unleashed magnificent three-power harmonies in “Is My Living in Vain,” and the Williams Brothers and Vanessa Bell Armstrong’s call-and-response at the end of “Precious Memories” (which Franklin herself once recorded) turned into a euphoric release. Performed with the repeatedly impressive Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir, Chaka Khan’s rendition of the gospel standard “Goin’ Up Yonder” built in intensity and brought out churchly…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

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Sasha Harriet

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