Even at Her Funeral Celebrations, Aretha Franklin Was the Height of Glamour

Posted August 31, 2018 8:31 p.m. EDT

On Tuesday, her outfit consisted of a lacy crimson gown, towering scarlet Christian Louboutin heels, and cherry-red lipstick and nail polish. On Wednesday, she had been changed into a pale, shimmering blue frock, again with matching heels. On Thursday, she wore a rose gold custom-knit suit by St. John’s, again paired with Christian Louboutins.

And on Friday, she was laid to rest in a full-length gold dress, with, of course, sparkling gold-sequined heels to match. Aretha Franklin’s farewell week comprised four days of high fashion and showcased the technical embalming expertise of Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit, the city in which her open casket was displayed.

In death as in life, Aretha Franklin demonstrated the value of an outfit change.

Before her funeral Friday at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, where Franklin was honored in a daylong ceremony, there were public viewings at the city’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the New Bethel Baptist Church. Her coffin was gold-plated and her wardrobe sang a similar tune.

Franklin’s clothes throughout her career, and since her death two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer, fearlessly announced her stature, and success. Her regal look is an indelible part of her legacy.

Louboutin, the shoe designer, said he had only encountered Franklin once, at a concert of hers in New York, in an exchange during which he was so star struck that he was reluctant afterward to say he had even met her.

“She complimented me for my work and I could barely reply one word, too shy and too impressed,” he said. “Her eyes were intense, equaling the power of her voice.”

He said a friend of his had sent him a picture of Franklin wearing Louboutin’s shoes in the coffin Tuesday with the message: “Lots of people die for them, she decided to die with them.” Louboutin added, “I feel terribly honored in that matter and of course highly moved by this gesture.”

The Wright Museum, where Rosa Parks’ body was displayed after she died in 2005, did not have official numbers on how many people attended the viewing each day, but Delisha Upshaw, a spokeswoman for the museum, noted that on Wednesday, the event that had been scheduled to go from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. lasted until midnight.

“I heard people say she looks so beautiful and peaceful like she’s sleeping,” Upshaw said. “She’s a fashion icon! What else would we expect?”

Upshaw noted that Franklin’s crimson outfit on Tuesday had been a nod to her honorary membership in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, “which is perfect,” Upshaw said, “because her sorority sisters came that night to pay her final respects.”

It was not only the elaborate beauty of Franklin’s outfits that were a nod to another era. Bess Lovejoy, author of “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses,” said the procession that attended her funeral, with its motorcade of pink Cadillacs, reminded her of nothing so much as the burial of Alexander the Great. Alexander, she said, had the prototypical celebrity funeral, with a glittering hearse that was meant to resemble a palace.

“There were years and years of dignitaries coming to see him, even though he would not be preserved with the skill that Aretha was,” she said. “There’s a story about Julius Caesar going to see him and accidentally crumpling his nose off.”

Indeed, even the efforts taken in embalming Franklin were a reflection of the period over which she ruled, fitting into a great tradition of skillful embalming at African-American funeral homes.

Stephanie Simon, the embalming manager at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans, which is known for elaborate preparations and display of clients’ family members, answered the phone Friday from the embalming room, where she was listening to Franklin’s funeral service. “African-Americans, we tend to hold a body a little longer,” she said of the tradition of embalming. “We want all of the relatives and friends to come from around the country. We would like them to attend the service as well.”

Simon, who has been in the industry for nearly 30 years, was impressed by the work of the Swanson Funeral Home. She said the work of outfit changes was time-consuming, and took extreme care. “You have to make sure you have the adequate manpower to carry out a delicate task,” Simon said.

Simon was a devoted fan of Franklin. “I wish I had more pictures to look at,” she said. “I’ve been on social media a whole lot, watching the different TV stations, admiring everything.”

Lovejoy said though there had been a move away from embalming in more recent years because it has begun to be seen as excessive (and toxic to those who prepare the body), modest preparations would not have befitted someone of Franklin’s glamour and performance capabilities.

“It’s not a showbiz thing to do to eschew embalming,” Lovejoy said. “What she’s doing makes perfect sense for who she was and the place and time when she was at her apex.”