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A Funeral Fit For A 'Queen'

Aretha Franklin's homegoing service was held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. This sign sat on a hearse outside of the church.
Bill Pugliano
Getty Images
Aretha Franklin's homegoing service was held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. This sign sat on a hearse outside of the church.

It was a celebration — a daylong tribute, full of stories sharing how Aretha Franklin's life touched her Detroit community and the world.

There were moments of politics and humor, but most of all, the Queen of Soul was honored with music at the Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit on Friday.

As the church swelled with attendees — a who's who of big names in music, sports and politics were present to pay their respects: The Clark Sisters, Ariana Grande, former basketball star Isiah Thomas and former President Bill Clinton. The missing voice was Aretha Franklin's.

"She was bathed in the black church. And she took the black church downtown and made folks that didn't know what the Holy Ghost was shout in the middle of a concert," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke at the service.

All throughout the week, fans from around the country flooded Detroit to pay homage to the Grammy Award-winning megastar as Franklin lay in repose.

At the funeral, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said that for more than half a century, the Franklin family had a huge impact on the city. Franklin's father, C. L. Franklin, was a prominent minister who organized one of the largest civil rights marches in Detroit. And then came Aretha.

"Each time she soared, it felt like the people of Detroit soared with her because she never lost her connection," Duggan said.

The mayor brought the crowd to its feet when he announced a plan to rename the popular Chene Park for Franklin.

Other speakers remembered the woman with the legendary voice for a life full of singing and activism — like the time she traveled with singer Harry Belafonte to raise money for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

The Rev. JoAnn Watson, a close friend, said Franklin was especially devoted and generous to her hometown. "She would ride the streets of Detroit, taking note of people who have special needs, quietly dispensing donations," Watson said.

There were lots of bittersweet moments like that throughout the service. Ushers roamed the aisles with boxes of tissues.

Franklin's reach was worldwide. She sang for presidents and former ones. Barack Obama and George W. Bush sent letters that were read aloud to the congregation. And the crowd laughed when President Clinton played Aretha Franklin's song "Think" on his cellphone during his tribute.

For Franklin's family, the loss was much more intimate. Her granddaughter Victorie Franklin said when she was young, she didn't recognize the fame of a woman others consider music royalty. But that changed.

"And when I would go to her shows and watch her sing, it would be the best feeling in the world," Victorie said. "Nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sings. Her voice made you feel something. You felt every word, every note, every emotion in the songs she sang. Her voice brought peace."

One of the most poignant moments came from singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson. He met Aretha when he was 8 years old. He said he wasn't expecting to say goodbye.

"I'll miss you, my buddy. I'll miss you, my friend. I know that my love for you will never end, will never end," Robinson sang.

Aretha Franklin had a voice that stirred the soul and changed popular music forever. In a nod to her hit song "Freeway of Love," pink Cadillacs led the procession to Woodlawn Cemetery, where she is now buried.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.