The life of superstar Whitney Houston was celebrated Saturday in a traditional Baptist “homegoing” ceremony, filled with tears, laughter and inspirational music at her childhood church in Newark.
For nearly four hours, Houston’s friends and family paid tribute to the 48-year-old singer, who died Feb. 11 in her Beverly Hills hotel room. Police have yet to give an official cause of death.
“We are here today, hearts broken, but yet with God’s strength we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston,” the Rev. Joe A. Carter told about 1,500 mourners at the New Hope Baptist Church, including luminaries Oprah Winfrey, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Jordin Sparks.
Kevin Costner, Houston’s co-star in “The Bodyguard,” said she worried about being liked and being good enough.
“Call it doubt, call it fear — I’ve had mine and I know the famous in the room have had theirs,” he said. “It was the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end.”
Many directly addressed Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, speaking of the singer’s love for her, as the 18-year-old clutched her grandmother Cissy Houston in the front row of the church.
Her father, Bobby Brown, did not stay for the service, according to The Associated Press.
In a statement put out by Brown’s representative, he explained: “My children and I were invited to the funeral of my ex-wife Whitney Houston. We were seated by security and then subsequently asked to move on three separate occasions. . . . In light of the events, I gave a kiss to the casket of my ex-wife and departed as I refused to create a scene.”
Houston’s godmother, Aretha Franklin, who was expected to sing “The Greatest Love of All,” was unable to attend because of illness.
Most of the songs chosen for Houston’s service reflected her struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as her faith. Stevie Wonder rewrote “Ribbon in the Sky,” and gospel singer Kim Burrell reworked Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” for the occasion.
Pastor Donnie McClurkin of Freeport’s Perfecting Faith Church said the family asked him to sing his hit “Stand,” which includes the lines, “When there’s nothing left to do, you just stand.”
As Houston’s coffin was carried out, her hit “I Will Always Love You” played. Bobbi Kristina Brown began crying and the sobs of Houston’s mother rang throughout the church.
“My baby!” she wailed.
The family wanted the funeral to be private, opting against a Michael Jackson-style public memorial at the nearby 19,000-seat Prudential Center.
Nevertheless, the public grieving for Houston has been massive. Flags across New Jersey flew at half-staff by order of Gov. Chris Christie.
Makeshift memorials made of flowers, balloons, signs and remembrances stand outside the New Hope Baptist Church, the nearby Whigham Funeral Home, where a private viewing was held for family and friends Friday night, and the Whitney E. Houston Academy Elementary School in East Orange, N.J.
Houston is expected to be buried Sunday at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, N.J., where her father, John Houston, is buried.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,” her mentor Clive Davis said. “You wait for a face like that, a smile like that, a presence like that, for a lifetime. When one person embodies it all, it takes your breath away.”