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Posted February 18, 2012


Parade of Stars and Fans For Houston’s Funeral

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mourners gather near New Hope Baptist Church in Newark for Whitney Houston's funeral on Saturday. More Photos »

NEWARK — The guest list and the parade of limousines with celebrities emerging from them seemed more suited to a red carpet event in Hollywood or New York than to a gritty stretch of Sussex Avenue near the James M. Baxter Terrace public housing project here. Yet speaker after speaker at the funeral of Whitney Houston on Saturday afternoon kept coming back to her strong attachment to New Hope Baptist Church, where her talents were first recognized and where the funeral was held.


Police officers on horseback stood sentinel at the entrance, near an illuminated sign that flashed alternating messages: “Whitney Houston” in pink letters, followed by “We will always love you,” a riff on perhaps the singer’s most famous song.

And fittingly, the interior of the red-brick church often resounded with song during the service. Though Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys and many other performers were well known to the mourners and millions more watching on television, choirs also proved a powerful, soaring presence.

Ms. Houston’s former husband, Bobby Brown, did not speak or perform. He arrived before noon dressed in a leather suit, but appeared to stay only briefly, leaving the church after about 20 minutes.

Among the speakers at the service were the actor Kevin Costner, who played her bodyguard in the hit film of the same name, and Ray Watson, her real-life bodyguard for the past 11 years.

Ms. Houston suffered “the inexplicable burden that comes with fame,” Mr. Costner said. “I’ve had it,” he added, looking out at the crowd, which included show business luminaries like Tyler Perry. “I know the famous in the room have had it, too.”

Mr. Watson told of the last moments of Ms. Houston’s life. She had been behaving abnormally at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, where she died on Feb. 11. He said that afternoon she had been listening to her favorite gospel singer, Fred Hammond, as was her pre-performance ritual, just before Mr. Watson left her to prepare for Grammy Awards the next night.

“Fred Hammond was rocking. I said, yeah, she’s in the norm,” Mr. Watson said. When he returned, Ms. Houston was dead. “It seemed like my whole word just —” his voice trailed off. “I lost a friend, a boss, a sister.”

Another speaker was Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records who had helped establish Ms. Houston as one of the most successful pop singers in the world, and whose party she was to attend the night she died. He said that in the days before her death, Ms. Houston, whose substance abuse problems had diminished her vocal strength, told him she was on the mend.

“ ‘I’m getting in shape; I’m swimming an hour or two a day, no cigarettes, I’ll be ready for August.’ ” Mr. Davis recalled her saying. “Well, Whitney,” he said at the church. “I’m going to hold you to it. Everyone in heaven, including God, is waiting. And I just know you’re going to raise the roof like no one else has done before.”

Fans of Ms. Houston had begun arriving in in the chilly darkness of Saturday.

In the same predawn hours, the police established a metal perimeter that sealed off the streets around the church.

Six hours before the funeral, Hedwig Berthold, 40, and Rhonda Owens, 32, two teachers who had spent $600 each to fly here from Miami, sat in their Nissan rental car, hoping to avoid being routed by the police.

“We came to celebrate her life and say goodbye,” Ms. Berthold said. On Friday, they signed a guest book at the Whigham Funeral Home, where the Houston family held a private viewing. “Her voice, her music, her smile,” she added, “those three things sum this all up.”

Nearly three years ago, the two women said, they flew to Michael Jackson’s memorial service in California, where they visited the Neverland Ranch, his parents’ house and the house where he died.

“We have friends who say: ‘Are you guys nuts to fly there? Whitney didn’t know you, Michael didn’t know you, and you’re going to go spend money to pay your respects for someone who didn’t know you?’ ” Ms. Berthold said. “Our relationship is with how much we love them, how much we love their music.”

Other fans, with commemorative lapel pins and T-shirts, expressed disappointment that they were kept so far from the church.

“The fans were so important,” said Tamara Stubbs, 34, who had taken an 11-hour bus ride from Raleigh, N.C., to be here. “We bought CDs, went to concerts. We were a part of it, too.”

Ms. Stubbs, who said her 13-year-old daughter, Whitney Elizabeth, was named after the singer, added, “I kind of feel like, left out.”

Juanita Preudhomme, 48, wearing pearls and a bright red jumpsuit, had flown with her daughter Giovanna Rose, 17, from San Diego. “I dressed this way because Whitney Houston was a glamorous woman,” Ms. Preudhomme said, as she sat in a cafe a few blocks from the church. “I feel like this is bitter and sweet. It’s bitter because we don’t have Whitney Houston; it’s sweet because we have the memories, the videos, the No. 1 songs.”

Ms. Houston and her family had a long association with the church. At age 11, she began singing solos in front of the congregation. Her mother, Cissy Houston, a celebrated gospel singer, was the choir leader. The family remained connected to the congregation even after moving to nearby East Orange from Newark.

Before the service began, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson told reporters that he had spoken to Ms. Houston shortly before her death. “She was prepared to sing that night,” he said, referring to the night she died. “Things were looking up,” he added. “We reveal our successes; we conceal our pain.”

He defended the family’s decision to keep the service private. “They have given Whitney to the world; they want her at home in her most natural setting, close to her mother,” he said. “In her most challenging times, this was home to her.”

Ms. Stubbs, from Raleigh, said that even though she could not attend the funeral, she had found some solace in being in Newark. “This is the only way I could ease my pain,” she said.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Obituary, of Saturday, February 18, 2012.

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