The funeral was held at the New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston had made her start singing as a child. The service, which lasted more than four hours, drew a crowd of famous names, from gospel greats and R&B icons to Hollywood actors. Houston’s cousin Dionne Warwick introduced an all-star group of speakers and performers that included Houston’s Bodyguard co-star Kevin Costner, Stevie Wonder, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Tyler Perry and Alicia Keys. Aretha Franklin had been scheduled to perform, but had to withdraw due to illness.
In a service that balanced heartbroken mourning with a palpable sense of joy in gospel music, many of the guests spoke of Houston’s faith and her roots in the church.
Tyler Perry was visibly emotional and breaking into tears as he spoke to the crowd. “She had a grace that kept on carrying her all the way through her life. It was the same grace that carried her home,” he said.
Kevin Costner, who described himself as Houston’s “pretend bodyguard,” spoke of his and Houston’s shared upbringing in the Baptist Church as well as the “unexplainable burden that comes with fame.”
“It was the burden that made her great, and the part that caused her to stumble in the end,” Costner said. “And now you’re gone, leaving us with memories of a little girl who stepped bravely in front of this church, in front of people who loved her…. You stepped into the white hot light of the world’s stage. You set the bar so high that professional singers, your own colleagues, they don’t want to sing that little country song. Now the only ones who sing your song are little girls like you, who dream of being you one day.”
Clive Davis, the music mogul who served as Houston’s mentor and earliest champion in the music business, described his reaction at hearing a teenaged Houston perform for the first time in 1983.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,” he said. “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, it takes your breath away.”
Davis revealed that Houston had visited him in his hotel the week before she died and played for him tracks from her forthcoming movie, Sparkle.
“She looked at me and quietly said, ‘I want you to know I’m getting in shape. I’m swimming two hours a day. I’m committed to getting my high notes back, no cigarettes. Clive, I’ll be ready by August.’ Well Whitney, I’m gonna hold you to it. Everyone in heaven, including god, is waiting, and I just know you’re gonna raise the roof like no one else has done before.”
In addition to further speeches from Houston’s manager and sister-in-law, Kim Houston, and her real bodyguard, the service was full of music, from the gospel choir that started the service off, to powerful performances from members of the Winans family, Rev. Kim Burrell, and R. Kelly.
“I wanted to stop and give out praise to god for just allowing me to be in life at the same time as Whitney,” Stevie Wonder said, before admitting “in my fantasy world, I had a little crush on Whitney.” He performed his song “Ribbon in the Sky” with the words reworked to honor Houston.
Alicia Keys was crying as she sat down at the piano, wiping away her tears. She recalled how Whitney nurtured so many younger artists. “She just made us feel strong and capable and loved,” Keys said, before launching into “Send Me an Angel.”
As the service drew to its close and the pallbearers gathered around the gleaming golden casket, the opening a capella notes from Houston’s recording of “I Will Always Love You” filled the hall.