Before the world marks the end of Aretha Franklin’s life at her funeral Friday, 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 for more than a half 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.
Shouts of “We love you!” “Ree Ree!” and “Let the Queen through!” could be heard as the white 1940s Cadillac hearse drove down Linwood Street and pulled up to the front of New Bethel. The crowd jockeyed to snap photographs and cellphone videos of Franklin’s bronze casket as it was taken into the church just before noon.
‘A lifelong fan’
“I had to be here,” said Joyce E. Stroud, who traveled from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to say goodbye to the icon she first met at a concert in California many years ago.
“I met Aretha when I was 23 years old in San Francisco at the Fillmore West when she did that historic three-day concert,” Stroud said. “That was the first time I was introduced to her and I’ve been a lifelong fan.”
Several dignitaries were also expected to pay their respects at Thursday’s viewing, which was opened to the public after the tremendous outpouring of support throughout the week. Thousands attended the two days of public viewings at The Wright Museum.
The sight would’ve been truly humbling, even for a diva, said Michael Eric Dyson, a friend of Franklin’s who attended the New Bethel viewing and will speak at her service.
“She would be deeply honored and appreciative of the fact that people, for three days, have poured out of every vestibule and crevice of this city and country to travel long miles to recognize her genius,” he said.
Linda Swanson, executive vice president of Swanson Funeral Home, echoed the sentiment. The funeral home, which has been in Detroit for 60 years, also handled the arrangements for Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who preached at New Bethel from 1946 to 1979.
“We, the Swanson family, also love the citizens of Detroit, and so it just swells our hearts with pride and joy to see the city turning out to honor this queen eternal,” she said.
Inside New Bethel, the scene was reverent, with gospel music softly playing as a sea of ushers guided mourners into the red-carpeted inner sanctum, decorated with pictures of Franklin and more lavender and pink roses, which also surrounded her at the public viewing earlier this week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Ever the performer, Franklin gave viewers yet a third outfit change — this time, a sparkling rose gold gown. Matching earrings complimented short cropped curls, and the ensemble was completed with gold-sequined Christian Louboutin heels. She has also worn head-to-toe red in honor of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and baby blue.
Upon exiting the church, fans were able to write notes of support and condolence on posters taped to the wall.
The Swanson Funeral Home has declined to say what Franklin’s final outfit will be for Friday’s service, but it will almost certainly be different. The funeral is expected to begin at 10 a.m. at Greater Grace Temple and will last at least five hours.