Sabrina Owens started to consider how to bid her beloved aunt Aretha Franklin farewell before the world even knew the legendary singer was ill.
“I tend to be a very organized person,” Owens said. “I started thinking about this back in January, because a bunch of family members were headed out of the country in a few months and I was worried something might happen while everyone was away.”
The intensely private Franklin family went public earlier this month with the news that the woman known as “The Queen of Soul” was gravely ill and receiving hospice care.
Days later she died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Franklin was 76.
Everything in excellence
Owens told CNN a great deal of thought has gone into how to honor her aunt, who, she said, didn’t leave behind any final instructions.
Franklin’s family has been intent on doing everything in the excellent manner the singer was known for, her niece said.
“We know that she would have wanted nothing but the best,” Owens said. “She gave the best, she expected the best and she would want her fans to have the best.”
The result has been a week’s worth of activities in Franklin’s hometown of Detroit meant to pay homage to a woman who helped define the city.
Franklin began lying in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit Tuesday.
Her body – clothed in red from head to toe to pay tribute to her honorary membership in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and surrounded by massive rose floral arrangements – will then be transported for a four-hour viewing Thursday at the parish where her father once pastored, New Bethel Baptist Church.
A special concert titled “A People’s Tribute to the Queen” will be held Thursday night at Chene Park Detroit Amphitheater, followed by a star-studded funeral set for Friday at 10 a.m. at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.
Owens said a group of family, friends and supporters dubbed “Aretha’s angels” have worked tirelessly to pull it all together.
“I know people think two weeks is a long time to arrange all this, but it’s really not with all that has to be done,” Owens said. “Two weeks seems like a lot of time, but you need that time in order to do this right.”
There has been a great deal of coordination between the family, the museum, the funeral home, the church where the funeral will take place and the city of Detroit.
George Hamilton, interim director and board member for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, said they are used to serving the public.
After all, more than 300,000 visitors a year come through the museum’s doors to view exhibits such as “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture,” a 22,000 square foot exhibition that tells the story of the African-American journey from Africa to present day.
But Hamilton said being a part of the home-going activities for a star of Franklin’s magnitude has been quite different.
“There are some challenges in hosting an event for an international jewel of a performer like Aretha Franklin,” Hamilton said. “She is, after all, a queen.”
Hamilton added that every detail – from additional security to how much water would be needed for the parched crowds standing in the heat – had been accounted for.
Most importantly, he said, has been delivering what the family wants.
“The position we have taken is honoring the family’s wishes,” Hamilton said. “Their direction has been that they want this to be an opportunity for the public and her fans to offer their respects. We all came together pretty quickly for the Queen to make sure that happened.”
O’Neil Swanson II of the Swanson Funeral Home handed out memorial cards Tuesday to those waiting to view Franklin’s body.
He talked to CNN about all the work that has gone into making this week run smoothly.
“You know the saying ‘Leave no stone unturned?’ That’s exactly what you have to do,” he said. “You have to coordinate with law enforcement to make sure routes are clear for the funeral service. It’s important to contact the clergy that’s going to be involved in the service.”
“So a lot of that includes planning,” Swanson added. “And, of course, she was such a unique person who impacted lives, not only in Detroit, but in this country and really all over the world.”
Not just a star
Owens said she drew inspiration from the various parts of Franklin’s life to aid in her planning.
Franklin’s songs and appearances with Martin Luther King Jr. helped to make her one of the faces of the Civil Rights Movement and her niece said she thought of Detroit’s first black mayor Coleman A. Young and civil rights icon Rosa Park’s services when she decided to have Franklin lie in repose.
The tribute concert planned for Thursday celebrates her dedication to the industry she inhabited for more than six decades and Owens said the funeral service itself will pay homage to Franklin’s gospel roots and her love of church.
“We knew we wanted to have certain gospel artists like The Williams Brothers and Pastor Shirley Caesar,” Owens said. “And there were other people who called us wanting to participate.”
Knowing that they wanted to keep the funeral service private for friends, family and special guests made the family sensitive to providing Franklin’s fans an extended opportunity to say goodbye, Owens explained.
And in the midst of all the planning, the family still hasn’t had time to grasp that the matriarch of their family, who loved them fiercely and would often text, is no longer here to share her wisdom.
“We really haven’t not had much of an opportunity to have private moments,” Owens said. “I know the world lost the Queen, but her sons lost their mother, her nieces and nephews lost their aunt … we lost a family member and we haven’t had a chance to come together as a group to truly realize that we have lost one who loved us so much and was so loyal to us.”
“It’s going to be very difficult after all this is over and people have all gone away,” Owens added.
So how are they holding it all together and getting it all done?
Owens said it’s all come together with a bit of divine assistance.
“We are being guided by the hand of God,” Owens said. “Guided by God and by Aretha Franklin.”