Dedria Humphries Barker
With one celebrity wedding and one celebrity funeral among the special events of my life, I have to admit, I felt better about the funeral. The marriage after the wedding only lasted seventy-two days, but I know the funeral will have a good end because Aretha Franklin, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a church piano player, was strong in the belief that Jesus waited up yonder.
Her funeral took place in Detroit, her hometown and mine. She was a girl of the north end, the same neighborhood where my father was raised. I am from the west side, low west side, miles south of where her funeral was held on August 31, 2018 at Greater Grace Temple. Riding north on Telegraph Road, cars stacked hood-to-trunk the closer we got to Seven Mile Road, then my sister turned her car right and traffic stopped completely.
At this first checkpoint, a Detroit police officer asked our purpose. He allowed Marcia to roll the car slowly to the second checkpoint.
A young woman stood in the middle of road, clipboard in hand. She flipped 6 pages but did not see Marcia’s name on her list, but no matter. Marcia uttered the secret password, which was Fannie. The clipboard woman handed over three black wristbands, one for each of us in the car: Marcia, Mary Jane and me.
Marcia waved the wristbands as she passed other checkpoints. We rolled past cameras and media set-ups, tents and talk show platforms. Overhead, helicopter blades whirled and sounded out, chop-chop-chop. A fleet of pink Cadillacs parked on Seven Mile reminded that Aretha Franklin’s 1986 hit directed us all to ride the freeway of love in a pink Cadillac.
The closer we traveled to the church, the quieter the outside became.
At the front entrance, I exited Marcia’s vehicle to escort our mother, Mary Jane. The red carpet unrolled before us, lined with paparazzi pointing microphones and cameras. Eschewing that, we crept behind the media to the front and watched other people trip the light fantastic.
This one lady wore a hat spun of black net. This church hat paid homage to Aretha Franklin coming and going. In front the crown sported a big bow, and in back on the wide brim let down, one word spelled out in big white letters, RESPECT.
Inside the lobby, we were arrested by a bank of beautiful flowers. Tears blurred everything around me as I studied the card pinned to the orchids, “Aretha, . . . forever in our hearts, . . . Love you.” I was present at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, her funeral.
The sanctuary doors were open, and at the foot of the long aisle sat the gleaming gold casket, two Detroit police officers standing at either end of the bier. As Marcia and I approached, one officer murmured: Keep walking, don’t stop. The casket was open; she wore gold, dress and shoes.
A few minutes later, viewing was halted in preparation for her family to process in.
In an auditorium seating four thousand, seats were no problem for guests wearing the V.I.P. black wristbands. But, mourners sitting in two sections were asked to move because Aretha Franklin’s family needed their seats.
She must have had 400 kinfolk there, including her body guards. These were called by name and asked to stand and be recognized. One was Ron Fleming, a Detroit police officer who I met when I was reporting for The Michigan Chronicle, and he was on Mayor Coleman Young’s security detail. I would have loved to say hello, but he was in the thick of it.
Television viewers saw some things those of us in the church did not see. But we saw some remarkable shows of love. The flowers, yes, and an exquisite oil painting of Aretha Franklin signed by DP. It didn’t look like a photograph; it looked like a beloved woman, face alive with amber light.
The service lasted nine hours, but then it was over and we were outside.
As the funeral procession organized, we crept along watching Detroiters on the streets, phone cameras in one hand, the other hand waving.
“Wave back,” Marcia told me. I flapped my hand back and forth, like a metronome on the other queen’s pace.
This one lady stood on the curb, thigh flashing from behind a long beige vest over a hot pants jump suit. Her flesh baring outfit reminded me that some of Aretha Franklin’s stage costumes bared her glorious girls. We passed a man holding a super-sized collage of Aretha singing at Barak Obama’s inauguration wearing the rhinestone bow hat now in the Smithsonian Institution.
I saw a little girl in a frilly dress with her mother who reminded me of my daughter, Terri. She was three when we lived in Danville, Illinois, in corn fields 125 miles south of Chicago, but we had to leave there. MTV was most of our entertainment, and in 1983 they did not broadcast soul singers, which meant Terri, a MTV watcher, didn’t know who Aretha Franklin was. We were too broke to buy records.
We ducked out of the procession to Woodlawn Cemetery where Aretha Franklin’s entombment was scheduled. Consider how times have changed. Woodlawn is the same burying ground that back in the day refused the dead of black folk. In one famous 1920s incident, Dr. Ossian Sweet pulled a gun on the Woodlawn gatekeeper who refused to admit the funeral cortege of the doctor’s wife.
There’s a lot of black history in Detroit and now Aretha Franklin is a part of it.