5 Lasting Lessons from Aretha’s Funeral

5 Lasting Lessons from Aretha’s Funeral

Aretha. The first name is enough. Like Martin and Malcolm, they stand as originals in an age of copies.  Songwriter, civil rights leader, amazing singer, women’s rights advocate, loving daughter, strong single mother. Little wonder that her funeral was a cultural touchstone. An event for the ages.

It was attended by the famous and infamous alike. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, Tyler Perry, Jesse Jackson, Omarosa and Farrakhan. It was a many-colored affair at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.  But one thing was absolutely clear. It was a black funeral!

Now if you’ve never attended a black funeral, it’s important to do your homework. If you’re looking for staid, somber, super-serious service, you’re probably in the wrong church. That would be the John McCain funeral. Go straight on Martin Luther King Blvd, right at the Masonic Temple, and 535 miles to D.C.  You’re welcome.

But if you’re looking for a celebration that’s colorful, spiritual, irreverent, cathartic, lengthy, loud, and at times tacky-welcome to a traditional black funeral. Franklin’s funeral was certainly not representative of all black funerals, but more than some would like to admit. They are called “home-goings” for a reason. For many they are a celebration of family members crossing over into a better place. And yes, there may be dancing!

So, let me identify 5 lasting lessons from Aretha Franklin’s funeral, especially for those black funeral novices.

Number One: If you’re attending a black funeral – bring a lunch.

I’ll spare you the anthropological and cultural distinctions of African time consciousness. Let me sum it up it up in 4 words. We-take-our-time! And we don’t mind taking your time either. That 8-hour funeral was long, but not uncommonly long.  I routinely attend funerals that exceed 4 hours. So, I am familiar with the local Subway shops and take my own intermission if necessary. So, bring a lunch…and maybe some Depends.

Number Two: If you’re singing at a black funeral –  bring a dress.

Black folk are funny. They might be sitting in church looking like they just left the club or an Easter parade, but they have “standards’ for those up front. I’ll get to Bishop Ellis in a minute, but Ariana Grande’s outfit was too revealing. Too short. I’ve NEVER seen Minister Farrakhan smile that much!  And spare me the “victim shaming” comments. Was she a victim? Yes! Was she inappropriately dressed? Yes! The two are not mutually exclusive.

Number Three: If you’re feeling touchy-feely at a funeral – bring your wife.

It was the talk of the funeral. The way- too-close encounter of Bishop Ellis and Ariana Grande. It was already bad enough that he insulted the Hispanic community and embarrassed his daughter with his Taco Bell joke. What happened next dropped it another level.

I have observed Bishop Ellis for years. He is the son of an amazing pastor, charismatic leader of a Detroit megachurch, passionate community activist, and formerly the President of a Pentecostal denomination in the holiness tradition.

But his comments and cuddling of Ariana Grande were inexcusable. Forgivable, I believe, but inexcusable. His actions laid bare a long-ignored culture in black churches that at times explains away unacceptable familiarity between clergy and members. We have our own “Me Too” movement, but our collective pathology at times blinds us into believing those are “white folk” problems. This is a teaching moment.

Number Four: If you are a pop-star at a black funeral – step up your game.

Two words. Faith Hill. It was painful! I was happy she attended. Appreciated her effort. But it was a swing and a miss. What Faith Hill and other “super star” singers don’t realize is that at a black funeral, there are probably better singers in the choir than they will ever be! Where do you think Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, the Clark Sisters, and Jennifer Holiday learned their craft!

And in case you think I’m being hard on Faith Hill because of her race, someone please forward this advice to Chaka Khan…and her fan.

Number Five: If you are eulogizing at a black funeral – bring a eulogy.

I could see it coming. I’ve listened to Jasper Williams for years. He’s a classic old-school whooper in the tradition of Aretha’s father, C. L. Franklin. Distinguished pastor and passionate champion for underserved communities. But he’s a child of his era. Much of the “counsel” he offered the black community in his message was well-intentioned but painfully simplistic. It advanced the short-sighted myth that the dissolution of the black family and black businesses is solely the fault of black people. Ridiculous. I know his time was limited and the hour was late. But if you can’t appropriately develop an argument, don’t deliver it.

And worse, it was a personal platform masquerading as a eulogy. The Franklin family said as much. If you’re doing a eulogy, do a eulogy. It is a fond remembrance of the life of the person who died. It is a spiritual encouragement to the bereaved family. It is not a launching pad for personal advancement or opinion no matter how important they may be. It’s not the place.

So, there you have it. My reflections on the Aretha Franklin funeral.  Those are my top five. Comments? What about your list?

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