NEWARK, N.J. — The three massive, unadorned crucifixes rising up behind the handsome altar of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church will watch over Saturday’s funeral service for Whitney Houston, the singing star who began her spiritual life within its walls; found her voice here, at age 11, singing in its choir; and who frequently returned here, no matter how famous she became, or how keenly troubled.
The 48-year-old singer, who died Feb. 11 in Los Angeles of as yet undetermined causes, never severed her relationship with the church, where her mother, singer Cissy Houston, has long served as choirmaster. New Hope Baptist fed the late vocalist’s early spiritual life as well as her style of singing — honey-sweet pop laced with a soaring, gospel kick.
The funerals and memorial services for modern-day celebrities have ranged from subdued and private — or, in the case of John Lennon, no funeral at all — to the very public and star-studded spectacles that took place after the deaths of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Saturday’s service for Houston, perhaps the largest celebrity funeral in New Jersey history, will fall somewhere in between.
Although it will be a private affair, Houston’s invitation-only service will be viewable online and on many networks, including CNN, BET, MSNBC, Fox News and HLN, with coverage beginning as early as 8:30 a.m. EST on some channels, although the service is not expected to begin until 11 a.m.
Houston’s godmother, Aretha Franklin, will be among those paying musical tribute to the singer, as will good friend Stevie Wonder. Arista Records founder Clive Davis, who signed Houston and mentored her in the mid-1980s, is slated to speak. Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z and Beyonce are expected to attend, as are actor Kevin Costner, who co-starred with Houston in “The Bodyguard,” and gospel singer and longtime family friend Marvin Winans, who will deliver the eulogy.
Public services, such as the one in 2009 for Michael Jackson, are as complicated as major TV productions or big celebrity gatherings such as awards shows, since they involve coordinating with the stars, their entourages and the media.
But private events, too, present challenges.
Friday evening, a half-dozen limousines, some black, some gold, began arriving at the Whigham Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Joined quickly by a red Hummer, the vehicles pulled up to a side entrance of the funeral home.
The identities of their occupants were not evident because the windows were tinted and the entrance was draped by a white curtain that had been put in place earlier Friday.
A short time later, Davis emerged from a limo that stopped short of the drape. He was cheered by some of the people gathered behind the blockade.
About 100 people looked on from two locations nearby that police had blocked off with steel barricades. At least two dozen police officers were on the scene, joined by a handful of security personnel in plainclothes.
Earlier in the day, a Newark Mobile Command Station trailer had arrived and was stationed close by the funeral home to monitor the crowds, keep the area secure and assure that the invited mourners had easy access and egress.
Security will be heightened for Saturday’s funeral and the procession of Houston’s body to Fairview Cemetery in Westfield where, sources say, she will be buried alongside her father, John Russell Houston Jr., who died in 2003.
Several fans said they understood the family’s desire for privacy, and were content to be close by, while others expressed disappointment at being kept at a distance.
Based on past events of this type, there is no way to predict how fans, many of whom have been waiting outside for hours, will respond when such an emotional event begins.
In 1926, after 31-year-old silent screen star Rudolph Valentino died of a stomach ailment and an appendicitis attack that rapidly progressed to peritonitis, many of his fans were overwhelmed with grief, and a few committed suicide upon hearing the news.
Days later, more than 100,000 followers showed up to pay their respects to Valentino at a public viewing held at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan. And when it seemed unlikely that all of them would have the opportunity to pass Valentino’s coffin, a riot broke out that lasted an entire day. It eventually took a contingent of 100 mounted police officers and members of the NYPD reserves to quell the violence.
A half-century later, when Judy Garland died of a drug overdose at her rented home in London, mourners kept the peace, paying their last respects to her by the tens of thousands, also at the Campbell chapel, after her body was flown back to the states.
As for the onerous events that sometimes occur at public services, sociologist and author Donna Gaines said, “Some people feel a need to be there, others just want to make the scene. But whatever the reasons, when you have that many people together, there is always the possibility of problems. Mass hysteria. Mob psychology. From a sociological standpoint, it’s pretty textbook stuff.”
At the 1977 service for Presley, which took place at the singer’s Graceland estate in Memphis, an estimated 80,000 fans showed up, along with one person who drove his car through the crowd, killing two of the mourners and leaving a third seriously injured.
There were no dark incidents reported at the public service for Britain’s Princess Diana in 1997. But some Royal-watchers feared there might have been, had Queen Elizabeth II not caved to public demands and given the ex-wife of Prince Charles the royal send-off they felt she deserved.
Even though Diana had lost her “HRH” (Her Royal Highness) status when she and Charles divorced, the family ultimately broke with tradition, and gave her a royal funeral. They even flew the Union flag at half-staff, for what was, reportedly, the first time in history. Diana’s fans had spoken. And they would accept nothing less for the “people’s princess” — a fact the queen was eventually forced to come to grips with.
One might have expected a similarly massive goodbye for Lennon, who was killed outside Manhattan’s Dakota apartment building in 1980. But, perhaps because his killer, Mark David Chapman, was identified as a “deranged fan,” Yoko Ono stunned the rest of Lennon’s fans with an unexpected statement: “There is no funeral for John.”
Ono continued, “John loved and prayed for the human race. Please pray the same for him.” (Many fans would later take part in a worldwide 10 minutes of silence, which Ono had requested, beginning at 2 p.m. on Dec. 14, eight days after the murder.)
Essayist, poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch, who wrote the 2009 book “The Undertaking,” notes that the decision made by Houston’s family members to keep the service private was theirs alone to make. “We’ve come to think of funerals in terms of all this hoopla,” he said, “but what is a funeral? It’s the obligation of the living to get the dead where they need to go, whether it’s the dust, the earth or the deep blue sea. The family should decide whether it is to be public or private, to do something or do nothing at all. And when all is said and done, one assumes that everyone who needs to be (at the service) will be there.”