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Mourning From The Ground Up: Aretha's Funeral Is Part Of A Joyful American Tradition

An impromptu memorial for Aretha Franklin outside New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit — the same church where Franklin's father Rev. C.L. Franklin was a minister and where she began her singing career. Taken Aug. 19, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.
An impromptu memorial for Aretha Franklin outside New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit — the same church where Franklin's father Rev. C.L. Franklin was a minister and where she began her singing career. Taken Aug. 19, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.

The Detroit Free Press issued a stern directive to fans and would-be Instagram influencers gathering this week to commemorate Aretha Franklin in her hometown. "Remember," admonished staffer (and occasional NPR contributor) Rochelle Riley in her Tuesday column, "We will treat this like church." No selfies are allowed with Franklin's gold-plated coffin, as she lay in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and no amateurs posting to YouTube will be admitted to her private funeral on Aug. 31. Riley encouraged her readers to forego thoughts of selling eyewitness accounts to TMZ and focus on the spirit of their very loyal local legend. "That means living up to the best of us and showing Ms. Franklin the respect that she showed Detroit by staying and loving us for so long," she wrote.

In her role as a commentator on proper civic behavior, Riley was right to remind Franklin's mourners that her three-day homegoing was not designed for their entertainment, or the world's. But, as no one knew better than Aretha, respect does not preclude the kind of strong emotional outpouring that such commemorative rituals inspire. Public funerals have been part of American culture since at least the Civil War, and, in smaller form, a centering element in African-American communities for more than a century. To call these rituals a form of entertainment feels crass, but only if we overlook the deep ways in which popular culture informs the nation's politics, community-building and spiritual life. The kind of state funeral that will commemorate Senator John McCain this weekend offers a more conventional image of decorum. But memorials for popular artists like Franklin do something equally powerful: They can dismantle, for a moment, the partisanship of politics and the sometimes oppressive propriety of officially sanctioned public life. And in a time of televised, and streamed, image and sound, public mourning is changing once again, connecting vast numbers of people whose responses to the loss of beloved stars reshape not only our shared ideas about who really matters in America, but our accepted ways of expressing both sorrow and the joy of remembrance.

To put it more plainly: While the eulogies given by President Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson at Franklin's service will certainly make a historical mark, so will the motorcade of pink Cadillacs driven to the funeral site by Mary Kay cosmetics saleswomen from as far as Texas and Florida. And while the decorum likely to be maintained by artists like Stevie Wonder and Jennifer Hudson during Franklin's service will honor her inestimable place in our culture, the fact that her niece Chrystal brought White Castle burgers to fans staying up all night to attend her viewing also matters. So does any American's ability to watch the service via streaming or on television, and even throw a party while doing so.

Throughout modern history, public mourning – especially of celebrities — has offered ways to momentarily erase the boundaries that keep certain Americans "in their place" — and obscured from common view. It's become a form of protest and of mutual recognition and, yes, of entertainment, in the deepest realization of that word's potential. In special moments, entertainment does not merely distract or remain superficial; it moves people, in real ways, to better comprehend others' experiences. Consider the hearse that carried Franklin's body to the Wright. It had borne the founding mother of desegregation, Rosa Parks, on the same route. And also Franklin's father, C.L. Franklin. And Temptations singer David Ruffin. The activist, the preacher, and the soul man. Each played a key role in defining the civil rights era. As an entertainer who was also an activist and an artist, Franklin's legacy combines all three.

Long before Franklin found her own vital place in this legacy, as one of the grieving voices at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s memorial service in Atlanta — and later singing his favorite hymn, "Precious Lord," at the funeral of his other favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson — public mourning often served as an insurgent force, through which marginalized Americans claimed a space within historical memory. In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrant New Yorkers formed massive processions for deceased rabbis and writers, including Shalom Aleichem, the author of Fiddler on the Roof.An estimated 150,000 mourners thronged the Harlem streets for the procession of Florence Mills, the groundbreaking theatrical performer who was also an early spokesperson for the NAACP. These outpourings of devotion were also insistent assertions of the right to gather – for immigrants and people of color to become indisputably visible and audible, making a hugely human mark on history. This was true again in 1995, when thousands of Mexican-American fans attended the Corpus Christi, Texas memorial service for slain Tejano singer Selena, and in 1997, when thousands of rap fans took to the Brooklyn streets to say goodbye to Biggie Smalls. In her coffin, Selena lay dressed in regal purple, a perfect spit curl adorning her forehead. Franklin, laying in repose, is similarly stylish, in bright red, her ankles coyly crossed in high heels. The limos in Smalls' funeral procession carried huge flower arrangements, one spelling out the word "BIG."

These glamorous elements feel like Hollywood, but they're also reflective of customs commonly observed in Latinx and African-American neighborhoods. Right now, Franklin is in the midst of her homegoing, a ceremony first devised during the years of enslavement to reclaim souls whose bodies had been objectified and often debased by whites. As the scholar Suzanne E. Smith has explained, homegoings became a form of claiming life in death: "We are the ones [who] came when the lynching happened and we picked up the bodies off the ground. We have an elaborate funeral because that's our tradition and that's our way of honoring people."

Throughout the long struggle for civil rights, homegoings have become explicitly political when protestors mourned – and forced others to acknowledge – the loss of those destroyed by violence and its aftermath, from Emmett Till to Erica Garner.

Homegoings were also an economic engine for blacks finding their footing during Reconstruction. Black funeral home directors became major economic players. The same was true for white entrepreneurs, including Frank E. Campbell, who defined the celebrity funeral phenomenon with the 1926 rites for Hollywood's heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino. Decades later, the hysterical throngs that said goodbye to "the Sheikh" (as Valentino was called) found an echo in the massive response to Princess Diana's death in London. Both of these public funerals have sometimes been derided as sentimental, and even crass, displays of inappropriate emotion. Yet even these events allowed for unacknowledged people to find strength in lamentation: Valentino's mourners were mostly women moviegoers, the secret ingredient in Hollywood's rise; and in death as in life, Diana represented England's common people, disrupting the hierarchies rooted in the bloodline monarchy that, for centuries, kept official England from truly seeing itself.

Aretha Franklin helped America see itself throughout her life; she was our royal, and our queen of the commonplace, too. Her family's decision to blend the public and private in honoring her deftly allows for some control, while honoring the history of public mourning she so memorably joined in herself. To revel in her homegoing is to honor her vast spirit – her love of playing with decorum, of glitter and satin, and of busting every seam of a song, whether it was a hymn or an ode to sexual joy. Her funeral, with its many glittering guests, will certainly be profound, but it will also be fun. In the privacy of your home, as you watch, it's okay to break decorum and let out a wail of sorrow, love and happiness.

For more information on Aretha's homegoing and to stream it — on Friday, Aug. 31 at 10 a.m. Eastern Time — head here.

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