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Two American Icons Memorialized with Deeply Personal Tributes

September 1, 2018

Over the Labor Day weekend, two extraordinary Americans were laid to rest with outsized memorials to match their larger-than-life personalities, talents and accomplishments – Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul; and Senator John McCain, the maverick congressman from Arizona. The country will seem lesser for their loss.

On Friday, Aretha Franklin, the 76-year-old soul singer and civil rights activist, was buried in a golden casket in Detroit after a traditional “home going” that lasted eight hours. Her memorial featured astonishing musical performances that honored the Queen of Soul with eulogies by luminaries such as President Bill Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 81-year-old war hero and Republican maverick, was buried at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Sunday after a service in Washington on Saturday that was attended by thousands, involving statesmen, colleagues, past rivals, family and friends – including McCain’s 106-year-old mother Roberta. The four-day celebration of his life was thoroughly choreographed by the senator himself prior to his death.

Both events were preceded by several days of memorials in various locations in order for the multitudes of admirers to pay their respects. The occasions were designed to pay tribute to McCain’s and Franklin’s extraordinary lives in ways that reflected their unique contributions and personalities. Franklin’s glamourous ceremonies were intended to be fit for a queen, while McCain’s dignified memorials were proper for a decorated war hero and elder statesman. McCain was one of only 31 people to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, an honor bestowed by leaders of Congress.

Befitting the Queen

Aretha Franklin died of complications from pancreatic cancer on August 16 at the age of 76 at her home in Detroit. The renowned singer and songwriter was voted the number one greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine and earned eighteen Grammys for songs such as “Chain of Fools” and “Respect.” She was dubbed the Queen of Soul in 1967, and her funeral was presented as “A Celebration Fit for the Queen.”

Aretha was born in 1942, the daughter of one of the country’s most famous African American preachers, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. She sang Gospel songs at an young age at her father’s church in Detroit, which was visited by famous singers and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Aretha released her first album, Songs of Faith, by the time she was fourteen-years-old. But it was only after she signed with Atlantic Records years later that she found the musical voice that catapulted her to fame.

Her eight-hour “homecoming” funeral was preceded the evening before with a concert called “A People’s Tribute to the Queen” at Chene Park, including local performers and gospel choirs as well as legends such as Grammy winner Patti LaBelle. The 6,000 free tickets were gone within minutes online. The concert stretched to nearly five hours and became a rollicking, interactive event for Franklin’s fans.

Prior to the tribute concert, thousands waited for hours outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for a viewing of Franklin’s body. A second viewing was held on Thursday at the New Bethel Baptist Church, which is where Franklin had performed as a young girl in her father’s congregation. Known for her sense of style, Franklin’s outfits changed for each of the viewings and the funeral service. On Friday, Franklin was dressed in a gold-sequined gown and matching sequined Christian Louboutin high-heels.

For her funeral on Friday morning, invited guests and members of the public packed the Greater Grace Temple megachurch. According to NBC News, the street outside Greater Grace was lined with more than 100 pink Cadillacs, a tribute to Franklin’s song from the 1980’s, “Freeway of Love,” in which the car was featured in the lyrics and video.

“Her song, the pink Cadillac song, meant so much to us, we use it at every event,” said Joy Bailey Greff, in a New York Times article. Greff is a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman who drove her pink Cadillac S.U.V. for 14 hours from Alabama to be part of the procession. “She’s just an icon, a legend, and it’s an honor to just be part of something like this and to be able to give back after she’s given so much to people.”

Franklin’s golden casket was carried by a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse that also took her father, legendary minister C.L. Franklin, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to their final resting places at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the singer was interred in a mausoleum that evening.

The funeral service was overflowing with music, preaching, and moving eulogies. There were speeches from former president Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Cicely Tyson, Smokey Robinson, Clive Davis, and Tyler Perry, among others. And there were musical performances from pop-stars Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson and gospel singers Shirley Caesar and the Clark Sisters. A block away from the church, several hundred fans watched the funeral service on a giant outdoor screen in the parking area of a gas station.

Both Franklin’s tribute and funeral were live-streamed so that fans and admirers around the world could view the memorial events.

Dignity and Patriotism

Senator John McCain, a decorated Navy veteran and United States Congressman, died August 25 at the age of 81 following a year-long fight with brain cancer. Several memorial services took place to honor the late Arizona Senator and allow the public opportunities to pay their respects.

McCain lay in state at the Arizona State Capitol with a private ceremony in the rotunda to honor his lifelong dedication to public service. Following the ceremony, family and members of the public paid their respects to the late Senator, as reported by The Atlantic.

Later, there was a public procession from the Arizona State Capitol to North Phoenix Baptist Church, where a religious memorial service took place. Moving eulogies were given by McCain’s close friend former Vice President Joe Biden and McCain’s daughter Bridget.

On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, McCain lay in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. A memorial ceremony in the Capitol also took place, and members of the public were invited to pay their respects to the Senator following the service.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, there was a public processional from the Capitol to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The motorcade paused at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where Mrs. Cindy McCain lay a ceremonial wreath to honor those lives lost during the Vietnam War. The public lined the procession route along Constitution Avenue to pay their respects to Senator McCain.

The processional then made its way to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC for a private, invitation-only memorial service. A total of fourteen men and one woman accompanied the late senator’s coffin into the cathedral. The pallbearers, listed as the senator’s friends, included a Hollywood star; a Russian dissident; several politicians; former aides and fundraisers. It was a way for McCain to honor the variety of his relationships, but also to make a public statement about what he considered important in his life and the life of the country.

Toward the end of his illness, McCain planned how he wished to be memorialized. He reached out to his former rivals, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and asked them to speak at his funeral. He also asked his daughter, Meghan, to speak, and she delivered a fiery eulogy in his honor at the service. There were many touching moments during the traditional ceremony, including when McCain’s wife Cindy was visibly moved during a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” by Renee Fleming.

On Sunday, a private funeral was held at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where McCain’s sons Jack and Don paid tribute to him, along with retired Army General David Petraeus and long-time friend Senator Lindsey Graham. Crowds of sympathizers lined the route as the senator’s final processional travelled to the academy.

McCain graduated from the elite Naval Academy in 1958, and later served in Vietnam as a fighter jet pilot. A military flyover was performed with the squadron one plane short, to represent the late senator. McCain was buried at the US Naval Academy next to his friend and classmate, Admiral Chuck Larson. “Chuck has his wingman back now,” the late admiral’s widow, Sarah Larson, told CNN.

As a tribute to McCain, his wife Cindy requested that flowers in honor of her late husband be sent to VA hospitals. “If so inclined, flowers may be sent to your local VA Hospital” reads the senator’s website.

Moving Tributes

McCain’s funeral was a tribute to the man himself – passionate, patriotic, with an attempt to bring opposition camps together.

Franklin’s beautiful homegoing in Detroit showcased how she used her gifts to become one of the country’s most beloved musical artists; a force for freedom; and a petitioner of respect.


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