A woman carries a poster as members of the public gather on the streets near the New Hope Baptist Church as a private funeral for singer Whitney Houston is held at the church in Newark, New Jersey. (AFP Photo/Stan Honda)
Hollywood stars, music greats and loved ones praised the “sweet miracle” of Whitney Houston at a moving funeral service in her home town Saturday, a week after the pop singer’s sudden death.
A gold-colored hearse delivered Houston’s body to Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, where she sang as a child before her voice was shaped and nurtured into a spectacular talent that arguably made her the biggest star of her era.
Houston’s casket was adorned with flowers as actor Kevin Costner stood up to deliver an emotional tribute to the singer, whose death at the age of 48 prompted sadness, grief and respect from fans and contemporaries worldwide.
“I urge us all inside and outside, across the nation and around the world, to dry our tears, suspend our sorrow and perhaps our anger just long enough, just long enough to remember the sweet miracle of Whitney,” Costner said.
The four-hour service ended with an audio recording of “I Will Always Love You,” regarded by many as Houston’s signature track and the theme of “The Bodyguard,” the 1992 box office smash in which she co-starred with Costner.
While Houston’s musical success took her away from New Jersey across the world, countless friends and relatives told of how the singer never lost sight of Newark and the community that shaped her.
Clive Davis, the legendary producer who became Houston’s mentor, said he was spellbound when he met her in 1983.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime. You wait for a face like that, a smile like that, a presence like that, for a lifetime. And when one person embodies it all, well, it takes your breath away,” Davis said.
“Cissy, your daughter stepped forward and shattered me with her version of ‘The Greatest Love Of All,'” Davis said, looking at Houston’s mother, a gospel singer and one-time backing artist for soul queen Aretha Franklin.
And Costner, in a frank recollection of his time spent with Houston, told how the singer almost missed out on her role in “The Bodyguard,” on account of her skin color and lack of acting experience.
“We could also think about another singer, was a suggestion. Maybe somebody white. Nobody ever said it out loud, but it was a fair question,” Costner recalled of questions posed to him at the time by the movie’s producers.
“I told everyone that I had taken notice that Whitney was black. The only problem was, I thought she was perfect for what we were trying to do,” he said, crediting Warner Brothers for agreeing. The movie became a blockbuster.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker set the tone for the service, which opened to joyous gospel singing from the New Hope Mass Choir.
“We are here to mourn our loss, but to celebrate her life. God is in heaven, and with him is one of our angels, Whitney Houston,” Booker said.
Streets near the red-brick church, which has been adorned with floral tributes, candles, balloons and condolence cards in recent days, were sealed off as the memorial service was by invitation only.
Fans were respectfully asked to stay away from the church, which had a capacity of only 1,500, for fear of crowds disrupting the event, but several hundred turned up regardless.
“I just wanted to get as close to her as I could,” Tamecca Melvin, from New Jersey, told AFP.
“I’ve loved her, I grew up with her. Even though she was a megastar, she was a homegirl. She always kept that persona… and I loved that about her,” Melvin said referring to Houston’s lifelong connection to her local roots.
Motown legend Stevie Wonder belted out an adaptation of his hit “Ribbon in the Sky,” changing some of the words to honor Houston’s memory.
But Houston’s ex-husband, soul performer Bobby Brown, with whom she had a daughter during a turbulent 15-year marriage, said he was asked to leave the service.
Brown later said in statement that he and his children “were seated by security and then subsequently asked to move on three separate occasions,” and that he was prevented from seeing the daughter he had with Houston.
“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. My children are completely distraught over the events,” Brown said in a statement released to US media.
Houston will be buried on Sunday at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, New Jersey next to her father, John Russell Houston, who died in 2003, ABC News reported, citing law enforcement sources.
Whitney Houston sold more than 170 million records during a near three-decade career, but in later years fought a long and public battle against substance abuse while trying to keep her performing talent alive.
Speculation has raged since her death that the singer may have succumbed to a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol, though official results from her autopsy may not be made public for up to eight weeks.
Saturday’s private service angered some fans who wanted a large public memorial event at a nearby stadium.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Greg Packer. “All the streets have been blocked, it is very difficult to come here. The family should have done a public memorial, something.”
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