*On Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 12 noon, with flags lowered to half-staff, some 1,500 invited guests filled The New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey for a four-hour “Homecoming” service for Whitney Elizabeth Houston (August 9, 1963 – February 11, 2012).
As the funeral began, three police officers escorted the silver and gold casket draped with white roses and purple lilies, and flanked by pallbearers under the direction of Carolyn Whigham, funeral director, Whigham Funeral Home, into the church where Houston sang in the choir as a child.
Houston’s grieving mother Cissy, daughter Bobbi Kristina and cousin Dionne Warwick and other family members, followed as the soulful New Hope Mass Choir and New Jersey Mass Choir sang “The Lord is My Shepherd,” setting the mood for a joyous service.
Ironically, one of the greatest voices of all time died on the eve of the music industry’s biggest awards program, the Grammy Awards, in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Her death at age 48 shocked her family, fans and the music industry.
During the service, famed soul singer Dionne Warwick served as Mistress of Ceremonies and introduced music greats from the past and present who remembered the amazing singer in song and verse, including Rev. Donnie McClurkin, Tyler Perry, BeBe Winans, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Rev. Kim Burell, Kevin Costner, Clive Davis, Ra Watson, Stevie Wonder, Rickey Minor, Alicia Keys R. Kelly, Patricia Houston, CeCe Winans and Pastor Joe A. Carter.
The singer was eulogized by family friend and her soul brother Rev. Marvin Winans who, in his emotional last words, told the congregation to “Prioritize. Always put God first!”
Alicia Keys who fought back tears said about Houston “it was so obvious the way she just crept into everybody’s heart” before belting out loud her song “Send Me an Angel.”
Houston’s longtime friend and the man who is credited with having discovered her and made her into the icon she became, Clive Davis, said a talent like Houston’s was rare. “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,” he said. “When one person embodies it all, it takes your breath away.”
Kevin Costner remembered his “The Bodyguard” co-star as someone who shared the same interests and values. Both grew up in the Baptist church, a bond he said they shared over the years of their friendship. Costner recalled Houston’s nervousness when she had to do a screen test for the role of singer Rachel Marron in the movie.
During his eloquent remembrance Costner also recalled that Hollywood executives were hesitant to cast Houston in her first starring role, preferring “somebody white,” but she soon won everyone over.
“I thought she was the perfect choice but the red flags came out immediately,” he said. “I was reminded that this would be her first acting role. You could also think about another singer, was the suggestion — maybe somebody white. Nobody ever said it out loud, but it was a fair question, it was. There would be a lot riding on this. Maybe a more experienced actor was the way to go.”
“I told everyone that I had taken notice that Whitney was black,” Costner said. “The only problem was that I thought she was perfect for what we were trying to do.” He ended up postponing the movie for a year so that Houston could wrap up her tour and star in it. But once filming started, Costner said, her insecurities took over.
“Arguably the biggest pop star in the world didn’t think she was good enough,” he said, recounting tears on the set as Houston questioned her makeup and voice. “The Whitney that I knew, despite her worldwide success and fame, still wondered, ‘Am I good enough, Am I pretty enough, Will they like me?’ It was the burden that made her great, and the part that caused her to stumble in the end,” he said. “People didn’t just like you, Whitney. They loved you.”
“Whitney, if you could hear me now, I would tell you, you weren’t just good enough, you were great,” he said. “You sang the whole damn song without a band. You made the picture what it was. A lot of leading men could’ve played my part … but you, Whitney, I truly believe you were the only one who could’ve played Rachel Marron at that time. You weren’t just pretty, you were as beautiful as a woman could be. And people didn’t just like you Whitney, they loved you.”
He then looked to Bobbi Kristina and offered advice to her and other aspiring stars. “To you, Bobbi Kristina, and to all those young girls who are dreaming that dream, thinking that maybe they aren’t good enough, I think Whitney would tell you, guard your bodies,” he said. “And guard the precious miracle of your own life. Then sing your hearts out. ”
And, without further ado, he beckoned to the shiny casket in front of him. “Off you go Whitney, off you go,” he tenderly said as if saying his last good-bye. “Escorted by an army of angels to your heavenly father. When you sing before him, don’t you worry. You’ll be good enough.”
Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder spoke of once having “a little crush” on Houston before singing a version of his 1982 R&B hit “Ribbon In The Sky,” inserting the lyrics “No more, Whitney, No more, Do you have to cry — You’ll always be a ribbon in the sky.”
R. Kelly tearfully performed the 2009 song he wrote for Houston, “I Look to You,” and director Tyler Perry talked about Houston’s “grace that led her all the way to the top of the charts.”
Aretha Franklin, who had been confirmed as a performer, was unable to attend due to illness. “Unfortunately I had terrible leg spasms and locked leg muscles,” Franklin explained in a statement. “My heart goes out to my dear friend Cissy, Dionne, Bobbi Kristina and the rest of the family.”
Houston’s family decided against a public memorial, as was done for pop star Michael Jackson after his 2009 death, but they agreed to allow the entire service to be broadcast live by television networks and on the Internet.
Many of Houston’s fans came from near and far to say goodbye leaving flowers, cards and balloons around the church in memory of the singer who had touched their lives and became a global star with her 1985 debut album, which included the hits “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love Of All.”
A glossy funeral program featuring a picture of the iconic singer looking skyward read “Celebrating the Life of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, A Child of God.” Inside were beautiful pictures of Houston as a baby, with her mother and daughter.
“I never told you that when you were born, the Holy Spirit told me that you would not be with me long,” Cissy Houston wrote on the back cover of the funeral program a note to her beloved daughter, “And I thank God for the beautiful flower he allowed me to raise and cherish for 48 years. Thank you for being such a wonderful daughter. Rest my baby girl in Peace; you’re now in the arms of Jesus. Love, Mommie.”
At the end of the praiseworthy program, Houston’s sensational rendition of “I Will Always Love You” rang out as the casket was carried out of the church bringing to an emotional end a farewell tribute to a voice that was silenced too soon. She was buried next to her father, John Russell Houston, at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, NJ.
A. Curtis Farrow of Irving Street and a key organizer of Houston’s “Homecoming” observed “there are more stars at this funeral than there were at the Grammys.” Seen paying last tributes to “Nippy” were: Governor Chris Christie, former Mayor Sharpe James, Mayor Corey Booker, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Rev. Al Sharpton, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Oprah, Gayle King, Valerie Simpson, Tee Alston, Freddie Jackson, Pauletta Washington, Tina Knowles, Cherelle, Marvet Britto, Ray J, Brandy, Sonja Norwood, Wes Morgan, Kurt Carr, Hezekiah Walker, MC Hammer, George Faison, Mr. “T”, Jennifer Hudson, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine, Melba Moore, Michelle Williams, Yvette Noel Schure, Cicely Tyson, b michael, Vy Higginson, M’Lisa Morgan, Angie Stone, Spike Lee, Londell McMillan, Esq., Kelly Price, Susan Taylor, Terrie McMillan, Vivica A. Fox, Mariah Carey, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Star Jones, Diane Sawyer, Angela Bassett, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Rev. Donnie McClurkin, Rev. Kim Burrell, Ray Watson, Rickey Minor, Gwendolyn Quinn, Patricia Houston, Ronald Isley & wife Kandy Johnson, Marcia L. Dyson, Michael Eric Dyson, Darlene Love, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Christine Baumgartner, Forest Whitaker, Roberta Flack, Diane Warren, Angie Winans, Marvin Winans, Jr., Debbie Winans, Carvin Winans and many, many more.
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.