The sublime spectacle of Aretha Franklin’s homegoing on Friday — live-streamed from Detroit, filled with the spirit and enhanced by a Twitter-wide congregation of hearty amens and occasional side-eyes — stood in sharp, if entirely coincidental, contrast to the midmorning coverage of the official ceremony at the U.S. Capitol honoring John McCain, the late senator from Arizona whose body would officially lie in state before a final memorial service scheduled for Saturday at Washington National Cathedral.
The basic outline of Christianity tells us that both Franklin and McCain have gone on to the same hereafter — and it’s a nice idea, but how so? It’s difficult to picture back here on the ground.
Franklin’s funeral was a full-on, epic celebration of going to a greater reward, where streets are paved in gold; everything said about McCain keeps coming back to the humility of the hero POW who could occasionally set aside partisan politics for the greater good. She offered the musical path to respect; he embodied respect in patriotic form. Leave it to the theologians to describe an afterlife where we all exist in blissful agreement.
As I write this late on Friday afternoon, Franklin’s funeral is still going on — in invigorating, what’s-your-rush splendor with a gleaming casket and more than 100 pink Cadillacs parked outside, clocking in more than two hours behind a schedule that included several dozen individual speakers, preachers, politicians, a former president, family members, friends and other singers.
It was best viewed via Internet stream rather than the cable-news networks, which kept finding excuses to cut away to interviews and commentary (or commercials), knowing full well they were not in it for the long haul.
The rest of us — particularly those of us following the Twitter hashtag #ArethaHomegoing — came for church, some of us more entitled than others to make cracks about late starts and marathon overruns. “It took a little time to get in here,” said Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, the day’s master of ceremony. “But I believe the queen wouldn’t have it any other way.” No jokes about clock-based concepts of time, please. As Ellis said, the event would take “the necessary time to honor this great woman of God.” (Cue the tweets about sitting next to the lady with the candy in her purse.)
Though its agenda may have seemed fluid to those who haven’t spent much time in black churches, the service ebbed and flowed with its own precision, purpose and meaning.
It did take a while to work up to a point where viewers could feel the presence. It fell to poor Faith Hill, the chart-topping country singer, to be the first to sing solo at the funeral for the woman who died Aug. 16 at 76 and was arguably the greatest singer of our time. Hill’s rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” failed to rouse, and some viewers tried hard not to judge. (Others treated it with all the respect of Becky’s potato salad.)
Ariana Grande also attempted the near-impossible, performing early in a shockingly short skirt and tasked with singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which trembled with uncertainty. She was consoled (and possibly insulted, though some would just say good-naturedly razzed) by Ellis, who said he heard her name and wondered if that was a new item on the menu at Taco Bell. He gave Grande a hug, letting her know she did just fine.
Scriptures were read, remembrances offered; Al Sharpton, who sat on stage next to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and yet managed to inch as far away from him as possible, got a dig in at President Trump; Smokey Robinson sang a few lines a cappella to “my longest friend.” The mayor announced that Detroit’s Chene Park and its performance amphitheater would be renamed for Franklin.
The Clark Sisters took the stage and greatly lifted the going-to-church vibes; others, including Marvin Sapp, Audrey DuBois Harris, Pastor Shirley Caesar and Chaka Khan, took viewers all the way there. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) stood to be recognized and the congregation shouted that they’ve got her back and she gave them what seemed to be a “Wakanda Forever” salute in return.
Hours in, the service took it to another level. Bill Clinton gave a short speech about Franklin: “This is what I think you should remember in this time about this remarkable woman — she worked her can off to get where she was.” He then played “Think” on his phone and held it up to the mic. “It’s the key to freedom,” he said.
“Long lines at the funerals of icons and short lines for voting,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in remembrance, noting that 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was also in attendance, lost Michigan by 11,000 votes. “Something is missing. . . . If you leave here today and don’t register to vote, you have dishonored Aretha.”
Fantasia Barrino-Taylor came out for a phenomenal rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” — and shoes came off. By 4 p.m., the service still had hours left to go.
McCain’s funeral in the cathedral will be, it goes without saying, tonally opposite, but somehow the spirit attends all. It will be marked by a different discipline, another kind of order, taking a different path home with eulogies from former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
There is no comparing the two people or their funerals, and there need not be. They travel on and the rest of us wonder, with some envy, what that must be like. (If it’s like anything at all.) It’s not about a heaven or a hell. It’s about leaving behind all this noise for what we can only guess and hope are the sounds of harmony.