Family and friends gather to honor fallen pop singer Whitney Houston, who died at 48
At an emotional funeral filled with music and tears, pop star Whitney Houston was celebrated at New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of Newark, NJ on Saturday.
The event drew a star-studded assemblage that included Kevin Costner, Stevie Wonder, R. Kelly, Clive Davis and many others, who offered their remembrances and delivered powerful musical performances as they said their final farewell to the singer, who died Feb. 11 at the age of 48.
Costner, Whitney's co-star in her breakthrough 1992 film "The Bodyguard," offered a particularly stirring eluogy that recalled Houston's insecurity in her talents, and her ultimately triumphant performance in the film.
Costner began his often-humorous speech by thanking the family for inviting him, and encouraging the assemblage to "dry our tears" and "suspend our sorrow just long enough to remember the sweet miracle that is Whitney."
Recalling their conversations about their religious upbringing — both were raised in the Baptist faith — Costner revealed that the church brought faith as well as the opportunity for mischief for them as children.
"The church was the center of our social life, and Whitney and I would laugh remembering how it was also the place where you could get in big trouble," Costner said.
The actor also recalled how, prior to filming "The Bodyguard," there were concerns that casting a white actress might have been a safer bet.
"I told everybody that I had taken notice that Whitney was black; the only problem was that she was perfect for what I was trying to do," Costner recalled.
Addressing Houston's uncertainty about her abilities – " the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble," according to the actor — Costner said, "Whitney, if you could hear me now, I would tell you that you weren't just good enough; you were great … a lot of guys could have played [Costner's] part, but you were the only person who could have played Rachel Marron at that time."
Houston's ex-husband Bobby Brown left the funeral after his entourage was turned away from the church as too numerous to accomodate.
The funeral on Saturday began with a few words from Newark mayor Cory Booker, who welcomed guests to the city and praised the "I Will Always Love You" singer.
"God is in our heaven, and with him is one of our angels, Whitney Houston," Booker said. "We love you, Whitney; thank you."
Pastor Joe Carter, of New Hope Baptist Church, encouraged the crowd to remember that they had gathered to celebrate the fallen singer, even as they mourned her death.
"We are here today with hearts broken, yet with God's strength, we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston," Carter intoned.
Houston's cousin, Dionne Warwick, approached the pulpit to applause from the assemblage and, in hushed tones, expressed her love for the singer and introduced Houston friend Tyler Perry.
Perry delivered an impasioned eulogy that emphasized Houston's deep faith, even — perhaps especially — in her most troubled times.
"There was a grace that kept on carrying her," Perry said. "Whitney Houston loved the lord, and in every conversation we had over the years it was evident that she loved the lord … nothing separated her from the love of God."
"If there was a grace that carried her all the way through, it was the same grace that carried her home," Perry continued. "God bless you Whitney; we love you so much."
Wiping away tears, singer Alicia Keys sat at the piano and praised Houston as "a beautiful human being … really, really caring.
"She's an angel to us, and she's been an angel to us," Keys said, before performing her song "Send Me an Angel."
Houston's longtime producer, Clive Davis, also spoke, praising the singer's "natural genius at interpreting songs."
"Personally, all I can say is that i love her very much … Whitney was simply one of a kind," Davis said.
Davis recalled how Houston had recently played him songs from her upcoming movie "Sparkle" and told him that she was committed to getting her vocal chops back into prime form.
"I want you to know I'm getting in shape; I'm swimming an hour or two a day, I'm committed to getting my high notes back," Davis recalled Houston telling him.
She'd be back in top form, Houston told him, by August.
"Whitney, I'm gonna hold you to it," Davis told the audience, "and I just know you're going to raise the roof like no one else has done before."
Thanking God for "allowing me to be in life at the same time as Whitney," Stevie Wonder expressed his gratitude for being able to record "We Didn't Know" with Houston, for a variety of reasons.
"Actually, in my little fantasy world I had a little crush on Whitney, okay?" Wonder revealed.
The singer then went on to perform "Ribbon in the Sky," altering the lyrics to characterize Houston as "an angel of God's choir." Wonder also performed "Love's In Need of Love Today."
Singer R. Kelly also performed, delivering a powerful rendition of the song "I Look to You," which he wrote for Houston's final album of the same title.
"We love you Whitney; rest in peace," Kelly said after the performance.
Warwick read a poem for her deceased cousin which read, in part, "Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free, following the path God made for me/I took his hand when i heard him call.
"God wanted me now; he set me free," the poem concluded.
Gospel singer and close Houston friend CeCe Winans — whose brother, pastor Marvin Winans, presided over the services — followed, performing "Don't Cry for Me," a song that Houston had also performed during her lifetime.
As guests begn arriving at New Hope Baptist Church — which Houston attended and sang at as a child — a choir and band began performing. The service ended with pallbearers carrying out her casket while her signature hit "I Will Always Love You" played over the sound system.
Houston's godmother, Aretha Franklin, was also scheduled to sing, but reportedly took ill and was unable to attend the service.
Houston died at the Beverly Hilton hotel, prior to Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammys party. She was found submerged in her bathtub by a member of her personal staff.
A cause of death has not been announced, pending the results of a toxicology test.