When Aretha Franklin is laid to rest Friday, she’ll travel as she did all her life: with grace and glamour.
The hearse that will carry her is a regal, pearly-white 1940 LaSalle, made by Cadillac, with sparkling chrome detail that looked as though it had been custom-made for the Queen of Soul herself. For the last 50 years, it’s been reserved at Swanson Funeral Home for some of the Motor City’s most stately send-offs.
The ivory hearse carried Rosa Parks in 2005, when the pallbearers pushed the antique vehicle with all their might on the final stretch toward the civil rights hero’s grave at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery. It transported the Temptations baritone David Ruffin in 1991 and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops in 2008. And it ushered Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1984.
Through it all, O’Neil D. Swanson II has been the man behind the scenes at every occasion. Swanson, the octogenarian funeral director at Swanson Funeral Home, has owned the business since 1958, and has been close to the Franklin family for years, he told The Washington Post.
When the Rev. Franklin died, Swanson was at Aretha Franklin’s side, escorting her in his white tuxedo at the funeral service, the Detroit Free Press reported in 2005. On Tuesday morning, he was there for her again, behind the wheel of the hearse as it glided up to the front doors of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Swanson stepped out to greet a group of white-gloved pallbearers, and the men opened the hearse’s back door, emblazoned with the Swanson family name on the exterior and a white dove on the interior. Before an audience of hundreds, they lifted the gleaming, gold-plated casket from the LaSalle’s bed with care and brought Franklin inside.
For Swanson, driving the Queen of Soul is personal.
“We had a lot of love and respect for Aretha,” Swanson said. “I’ve known her many, many years. Her father and I were close, and so it’s a privilege for us to be servicing her and her family.”
Swanson was two years out of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science when he founded the funeral home in 1958. He said he bought the hearse several years later, knowing it was a treasure the moment he saw it. The LaSalle was a sub-brand of Cadillac from 1927 to 1940, making Swanson’s hearse one of the last of the model.
“I guess I have a liking for vintage cars — classic cars,” he said. “We’ve been very attentive to it over the years.”
As Swanson built the business, his funeral home grew to become a “Detroit institution that has shepherded thousands of residents far above and beyond 8 Mile and guided families and communities through their grief,” as the Detroit Free Press described it in 2005, ahead of Parks’s funeral. Over the years, the Free Press reported, Swanson has provided scholarships to low-income students and donated to churches and various civic organizations.
The funeral home has even attracted good deeds from Franklin herself. Linda Swanson, the funeral home’s vice president, told the Associated Press that Franklin would often pay for the funeral expenses of needy families — often “in full without being asked or prompted to do so.”
Franklin has lain in repose this week at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum and will do so on Thursday at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, her father’s church. On Tuesday, Franklin was dressed in a stunning crimson-red lace dress with matching patent leather red pumps, the Detroit Free Press reported. On Wednesday, she wore a powder-blue dress with shoes to match.
“She is presented in a way that reflects her life and her legacy,” Linda Swanson told the Free Press. “She is, indeed, resplendent in repose, as a queen should be.”
Franklin’s funeral, a private event, will take place Friday, featuring speakers such as Smokey Robinson, former president Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and recording mogul Clive Davis.
Then Franklin will take her final ride. The 1940 LaSalle is expected to carry her down 7 Mile and Woodward Avenue, bringing her to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery amid a procession of more than 100 vehicles, and more than a few pink Cadillacs.
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