The emotional journey of a week in Detroit after the death of the Queen of the Soul.
Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press
Aretha Franklin's last public act was one for the ages.
For more than two weeks following their death on 16 August, the Queen of Soul took over Detroit, galvanizing and uniting the city through the epic funeral and procession holiday that had Citizens packing the sidewalks for 9 miles. The magnitude of the moment had turned out, and Detroit stood up for the occasion.
In August 2018, Aretha mythology was locked up forever. The singer was silenced but with death her voice only got louder – even in the midst of the classic frustration that we might not take people for granted while they're still here.
For a worldwide audience watching since their death. Detroit was presented in ways that the world does not often see. It was the true soul and character of the city, the part that does not always tell the news of downtown revival or ongoing school fighting.
There was a scene last week at the Wright Museum, where Detroitters – some in wheelchairs and strollers – were waiting under their blazing sun for their quick final moment with Franklin. Outside, the atmosphere was festive and communal, a carnival mix of music, sellers, laughter. Inside, the mood shifted gently to solemnity and tears.
There was never any doubt that their music was loved. But these last two weeks made it clear how deeply Franklin was embedded in the heart of Detroit and how she seemed to portray the city. It was a musical royalty and she was a family: "Our Queen" was the phrase you heard most about those who came to mourn and celebrate.
Franklin's death on 16 August was no shock. Their health had been clear for years, and an urgent report on the night of the Show411 on August 12th in Los Angeles got everyone on their toes. Still, there was a jolt on Thursday morning when the official word came from Franklin's family: The Queen of the Soul had passed away at 9:50 am in her downtown home.
The grim drizzle and cloudy skies in Detroit that day felt appropriate. But also the brightness that penetrated into the gloom, as Franklin's music was suddenly everywhere to see, sidewalks streaming, streaming from passing cars and filled office lobby.  This solemn spirit continued with the days. Social media has been illuminated with a flood of acknowledgments from around the world. Radio stations forced Franklin's music into strong rotation; SiriusXM devoted a whole channel to him. Warm stories and amusing anecdotes came from the woodwork, and you could even forgive storytellers whose emphasis was on "me" rather than "they": on the bottom line, Aretha is on everyone's lips.
The funeral was to take place two weeks later and build a kind of "Super Bowl" style for the big event. The activities were quickly thrown together – a gospel homage in their family church, three days of public viewing, a tribute concert looking for a venue and finally landing at Chene Park.
In the middle of everything, in a cosmic mood of timing, Detroit got tour visits from the two biggest female music stars of the day. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift each played Ford Field, and both made their sold-out shows on the Queen of Soul – the former dedicated their concert to Franklin, who held a minute of silence.
They said the same words on stage: We love you, Aretha. "
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Franklin left little to her report before she died, and behind the scenes, a small team of family members and staff, led by niece Sabrina Owens, raced through the process, organized matters, and checked details Even as the rush of global media inquiries and other demands pushed it down, information leaked out: Franklin had not died of pancreatic cancer, as the term is widely understood, but of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, a much rarer condition The curtain finally became the years of medical problems who had been following Franklin since 2010, when she was first diagnosed. The singer operated in secret – in fact, most of the news was that she had left her old house in Oakland County last summer to spend her last year in Detroit's Riverfront Towers.
Detroit has shown an excessive production amount of prominent musical talent through the decades. Some of these stars were bigger sellers – starting with Eminem and Diana Ross – and others have radically changed the music scene, from Stevie Wonder to the rough protopunk bands of the late 60s.
But these last two weeks made it clear that no one personified the city much like Franklin did-the soul, the bravery, the hard-earned genuineness.
"She was black without apology or apology," roared the academic Michael Eric Dyson at the funeral on Friday. "She was American without argument or exception."
The funeral was a personal, generous affair, an eight-hour ceremony that took place like a long movie: tears and tails of Smokey Robinson Franklin's grandchildren. Show stopper by singers like Jennifer Hudson and Chaka Khan. Fiery of Dyson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The colorful event became a field day for online meme makers, from Bill Clinton's ravishing expression to Ariana Grande's leg splendor to Cicely Tyson's fabulous floppy hat.
Amid the urgent buzz of news choppers over their heads, the throngs of people risking a look, and the celebrities that flocked to the city could not help but think: Aretha would have loved that.
There followed a week of grandiosity that captured the public's imagination – the gold casket, the eye-catching LaSalle hearse, the clothing that turned on every public viewing and culminated in a gold-trimmed death coat.
In recent years, the main story of Franklin and her finances has been ugly – a jumble of unpaid bills and court judgments. Days after her death, it turned out that she had left no will, probably years of haggling in court.
But in the aftermath of her death, as people in the city started talking, another kind of story was revealed. Franklin has, as it turns out, donated countless thousands – perhaps millions – to district churches and charitable groups over the years. Everything Without Fanfare or Public Credit
Rev. Robert Smith Jr. of New Bethel Baptist, Franklin's home church, recalled that Franklin would drive up in a limousine – then someone else would have the check or the purse with the money (19659009) Radio personality Mildred Gaddis said Franklin would hear a news report about a local family that had suffered a tragedy and call the station for a private address so she could donate anonymously.  "Thank you, Lord, for Aretha, whose generous gifts fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the homeless," said Dr. EL desperation during his prayers at the funeral.
The entrepreneur and former Franklin neighbor Ron Moten, who spoke at the funeral, announced the time when the singer performed with a full battery of musicians for his mother's 90th birthday
Leaving a legacy
Franklin's death brought out the best in most cases. Isiah Thomas was among the individuals and institutions who donated to host the free Chene Park performance on Thursday. That evening, self-grown singers seemed to outdo each other in a friendly contest – and produced a magnificent show of Aretha Franklin music on a beautiful summer night.
"Aretha loved Detroit," said record manager Clive Davis at the funeral on Friday. "And Detroit, you have led the world in loving Aretha."
Davis helped bow to what we had seen here since Franklin's death.
All in all, they were sometimes an unforgettable dizzying couple of weeks. And they underscored that Franklin had been here, one of us, so omnipresent that we might need her death to remember how sublime she was.  The queen of the soul was undoubtedly greater life. It could only be bigger after that.
Contact Detroit Free Press Music author Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]
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