The word “funeral” just doesn’t do it justice! The Queen of Soul gets all our respect for her four-day royal farewelling. Reclining regally in a golden coffin surrounded by pale pink and lavender roses, legendary musician Aretha Franklin wore a different outfit for each of her goodbye appearances. Her ultimate costume change? A stunning golden gown and sequined heels (now that’s fierce final fashion!) Link to podcast Final Fashion episode. Franklin’s farewell included a funeral cortege of more than 100 pink Cadillacs and a roster of 18 performers and 27 speakers, including Chaka Khan, Bill Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Smokey Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Holliday and Gladys Knight.
February 12, 1809 - April 15, 1865
A mourning nation was given time to pay their respects to President Abraham Lincoln as his body was transported by train 1,654 miles, through seven states, from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois, on what became known as the “The Lincoln Special.” The train made scheduled stops during which Lincoln’s coffin was taken off the train and carried by horse-drawn carriage to a public viewing area. Lincoln was buried in his family plot next to his 11-year-old son who had died of typhoid fever three years earlier. Read George Saunders’ incredible novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” here https://www.amazon.com/Lincoln-Bardo-Novel-George-Saunders/dp/0812995341
January 8, 1935 - August 16, 1977
When Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll, died suddenly of a heart attack, so many fans rushed to Memphis that President Jimmy Carter ordered in 300 National Guard troops to help keep the peace. On August 17, 1977, over 30,000 heartbroken fans processed through Graceland to pay tribute to the King. The following day his private funeral was held in the living room at Graceland. This intimate farewelling for the world’s biggest pop star included testimonials and performances by veteran members of his concert tours.
July 1, 1961 - August 31, 1997
Diana, Princess of Wales, popularly remembered as The People’s Princess, was only 36 years old when she was killed in a tragic car accident in Paris. Two billion people around the world watched their televisions in shock and sadness as the adored princess’ coffin processed from Kensington Palace to the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where she received a proper royal ceremonial funeral despite her divorce from Charles, Prince of Wales. The cortege passed close to a million grieving spectators lining the London streets, and the official ceremony included 2,000 mourners, proving just how much the beloved Diana, Princess of Wales would be missed, but never forgotten.
May 6, 1895 - August 23, 1926
When the silent screen star known as “The Latin Lover” died unexpectedly at the age of 31, the NYPD had to try to calm more than 100,000 despondent fans gathered in the street in front of the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan. Meanwhile, in true Hollywood publicity stunt fashion, Valentino’s actress girlfriend Pola Negri made a dramatic scene on the street, insisting they had been engaged to be married, and inside the funeral home four hired players impersonated Black Shirt honor guards, supposedly sent by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in honor of the fallen Italian immigrant.
Martin Luther King Jr.
January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968
There were many steps on MLK’s final journey to the Promised Land. The day after he was assassinated, he was laid out in a bronze coffin for a viewing and memorial service in Memphis. Afterwards, the police and National Guard accompanied a long procession of cars and mourners to the airport to transport Rev. King’s body to Atlanta. In Atlanta, there was a private funeral at King’s church, followed by a three-and-a-half-mile procession to Morehouse College for a public funeral attended by over 100,000 people.
Duke of Wellington
May 1, 1769 - September 14, 1852
Queen Victoria called the British statesman who conquered Napoleon at Waterloo “the greatest man the country ever produced.” It took six weeks to prepare St. Paul’s for the duke’s funeral: time to build scaffolds for tiered seating to accommodate over 13,000 and swath the cathedral in black crepe. Now that’s the kind of personalization we can get behind! Over a million mourners lined the streets to pay their respects as a 12-ton, six-wheeled funeral car carried Wellington’s coffin to St. Paul’s, where it was lowered into the crypt of the cathedral.
Hunter S. Thompson
July 18, 1937 - February 20, 2005
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson knew exactly how he wanted his story to end, and he shared his wishes! Thanks to his friend, actor Johnny Depp, who funded the final (and fittingly explosive) tribute, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a canon on top of a tower while red, white, blue, and green fireworks exploded. For the writer’s final playlist, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” played in the background. But none of this awesome personalization would’ve happened if Thompson hadn’t thought about, and shared, his Farewelling File.
September 15, 1909 - February 3, 1969
Still considered the biggest funeral in history, as certified by the “Guinness Book of World Records,” C.N. Annadurai’s 1969 funeral brought 15 million people into the streets of Chennai to honor the memory of the respected politician, writer, orator, and human rights activist who became the popular chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state formerly known as Madras.
September 24, 1936 - May 16, 1990
Who but Jim Henson could boast a performance by Big Bird at his farewelling? A showman to the end, Henson, the creator of the Muppets, had two public memorials: one at Saint John the Divine in New York City, the other at St. Paul’s in London. In fine Farewelling funeral fashion, Henson left specific directions about his services: there should be a jazz band (always a good choice if you ask us), and no one should wear black. You can start your own Farewelling File here.
February 6, 1895 - August 16, 1948
The cover of the Daily News read “RUTH GOES HOME,” and for two days the body of baseball superstar Babe Ruth, aka “the Sultan of Swat,” laid for viewing in the House That Ruth Built (Yankee Stadium). An estimated 100,000 grieving fans, young and old, passed through to say tearful goodbyes to their hero. Ruth’s funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan with 6,000 mourners inside and another 75,000 waiting outside in the rain. One hundred thousand people lined the route from Manhattan to Westchester, and another 6,000 were waiting to say goodbye at the cemetery.
Erica W. Cantley is a writer, educator and hospitality professional in Brooklyn. She is the author of the memoir “Teaching Hamlet as My Father Died.”