A Farewell to Whitney Houston: A Look at Staging a Private Funeral for a Public Figure

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The scene outside The New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where the funeral of Whitney Houston will be held on Saturday. (John W. Ferguson/Getty)

Whitney Houston’s family plans to hold a private funeral service on Saturday for the singer at New Hope Baptist Church in the Newark, where Houston first sang in the church choir as a youngster.

Reports that that the service would be open to all and held at the Prudential Center this weekend were quashed when employees at the Whigham Funeral Home in Newark said that the family opted instead for an invitation only funeral.

An expert in arranging a private service for a public figure is Dominic Carella, vice president of the Upper East Side’s Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, which has overseen celebrity funeral preparations for decades. They’ve helped to arrange funerals for icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John Lennon, Brooke Astor, Heath Ledger and Biggie Smalls.

Making Arrangements

Carella, who’s been in the bereavement business for 22 years, said the most important concern is always the family’s wishes.

After meeting with the family and coming up with an overall plan, the next step is meeting with church pastors and addressing what their concerns and requests are, according to Carella. For instance, is there a certain entrance guests will use?

Overseeing media and security is also multi faceted process

“What I’ve learned is that being clear with the media and others up front about the plan cuts down on the chaos. For instance, when we handled the preparations for the Badger family it was a private service but still, there were hundreds of press stationed outside. I said lets work with them and we passed out a prepared statement from the family. Otherwise, sometimes the media can get out of control,” said Carella. The three Badger girls were killed in a Christmas Day  fire in Connecticut this past December.

Then you’ve got to do a ‘walk though.” Sit down with the police department. How will the casket arrive? Will the VIP’s have their own security detail?

The Guest List

Making the list of invitees is next. Carella said they normally work with managers and publicists to create a VIP list. The list can change on a dime and more often than not,  it’s  constantly revised.

Usually for security purposes, guests will have a password to use when they arrive or a special ID card. Sometimes guests will receive an email with the particulars of the service and the password.

Also, seating charts aren’t just for weddings. They’re key at a high-profile funeral. “Celebrities will often arrive with their staff and want to be seated next to someone else in the church, you have to prepare for that,” said Carella.

Security and Privacy

Another wrinkle in keeping tight security is keeping cell phone cameras at bay.

The 30 full time employees at Frank E. Campbell must adhere to a no cell phone policy at the funeral home. Instead, they drop them at lockers on the way into work.

And flower deliveries can only be left at a special entrance. “In the past when a paparazzi or someone else was trying to break security,”  Carella revealed, “they’d pose as a flower delivery person and try to enter the chapel, but it’s never allowed.”

He said he cringed when he saw pictures of the last meal Whitney Houston ate in her hotel room all over the web. “It’s a crime scene; these are things you need to protect.”

The Manhattan funeral home has been in business in the city for more than a century, with time comes experience, Carella said. “Sometimes smaller, less experienced funeral homes don’t know what they’re in store for.”

If he were staging an event like the Houston funeral on Saturday, Carella said he would use a minimum of 25-50 security people outside. It would be divided in different sections. The street would be closed, except to VIPs and there would be a separate holding area for cars. Employees would also man all the doors, with police on hand to help control the crowd and the media.

Inside, he said he’d staff a minimum of 20 people with a number of plain–clothes “spotters” on hand to make sure nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

Carella said when thousands attended the public viewing of Salsa star Celia Cruz, his spotters confiscated dozens of cameras when visitors attempted to break the no strict pictures policy.

“We always try to be one step ahead in our thinking — sometimes that keeps me up at night,” Carella said.


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Comments [9]

roberto del valle from el barrio

why the hell, does the puerto rican flag have be everywhere?! how gratuitous, asinine, and ridiculously ethnocentric.

Feb. 20 2012 01:14 AM
roberto del valle from el barrio

the idiot who burned the flag in michigan, is beyond help. i don't support the people who went to war. they did not go to war for me !! the world is not better, for their efforts. sinatra had mob ties,no one was bitching about that,when be dropped dead !!

Feb. 20 2012 12:03 AM

People who think that because they bought a product (movie, CD) they are therefore somehow personally connected to the artists involved in its production are pathetic. I suppose on some level it's understandable -- you see the actors' faces in huge closeups that you'd only see in real life if you were 3 inches from them. But reasonable adults should be able to understand that this does not constitute a relationship and does not entitle them to demand a venue to demonstrate their ersatz grief.

Feb. 19 2012 11:19 AM

I can't believe the comments from people that think just because they spent money on and album or for concert tickets think they should have an engraved invite to Whitney's funeral !! Think about it, she was a public figure but also had a private life. She did not know you, you prob. would not ever meet her, quit putting yourselves in the limelight !! Who gives a crap that YOU, as a fan was left out !! You remind me of people like Rev. Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who rides on the coattails of others to make yourself popular and to make money... You all make me sick.. Let the family grieve in private, this was their child, mother, sister, daughter, cousin, friend ! You were not part of her although you helped put her where she is today... Don't put yourself on the guest list, face it, you were not part of her "REAL" life ..... cherish her from afar, where you should be and cherish the fact that you enjoyed her music, films, etc. not her personal life.

Feb. 18 2012 07:36 PM
Robert Brown from Australia

It is important that the public should also be indirectly included,in Whitney's funeral.If it was'nt for Whitney's fans,she would'nt be as popular as she was.
I really enjoyed her music and will be sadly missed in person.However,her music will always be playing in my heart.

Feb. 17 2012 01:44 AM
tami g muskogee okla from muskogee oklahoma

im really sorry about the familys lost of a beauitful singer whitney houston...i always dreamed of meet her but never got the chance but we all will see her in the heavenly pearl gates of heave i love you whitney your truely tami g muskogee oklahoma

Feb. 16 2012 10:15 AM
Joan from Union county,New Jersey

I just want to say it's a shame that Whitney Houston family have no consideration for the fans they are the people who made her a celebrity without the fans she would not have been so successful it's very selfish not to allow the public just to walk past her casket and say goodbye, Fans become like family members they are grieving as well if not more than her biological family, this was the life Whitney choose to live being a celebrity or public figure, Why didn't the family reap the benefits by taking the fans and the public's money when they supported Whitney Houston's by purchasing records,albums,and cd's and buying $100 to $200 dollar ticket to see her perform on stage. I read an article in today's Star-ledger newspaper saying that Whitney Houston's family didn't want her funeral to be a spectacle with that being said we the people are not good enough to attend her funeral but we were good enough to spend our hard earned money to support her. Well I'm here to tell here family I would not contribute another dime to anything that has the Houston, Brown or Warwick name on it the only way I would see this movie " Sparkle" is if it comes on cable which I have to pay for anyway or if it's in the dollar store. And the funeral home that handling the funeral arrangements (whigham's) in Newark were always consider upscale to the Black community not after yesterday's article where the Proprietor Carolyn Whigham's came out and told the fans and the media you have had Whitney for 30 years let the family bid her farewell in peace how in considerate and hurtful is that, I have a client who actually cried after reading that,that was a slap in the face.when Caroly Whigham's needs to know public relations is not one of her strong points.For a funeral director to make a statement to grieving families or grieving fans show she has no compassionate when it comes to grief I use to write voucher for the indigent and recommend the families to Whigham's Funeral home I will never recommend a cat to them.I praise Cambell's funeral home this is where all celebrities from the East coast should be memorialized these people have buried Luther Vandross, Aliyah,with a horse drawn carriage for the public to mourn and have closure as well as the family, You get what you pay for because if this family would have patronized Cambell's Funeral Home who are experienced with dealing with celebrities and celebrities families the Houston family would have been encouraged to do the right thing by the fans and we would not be having this conversation or forum today I commend the person who wrote this article for upset fans to express their opinion

Feb. 15 2012 10:06 PM
Miki D

I think the public made these celebs who they are, and some are mourning and would come from far and wide and inconvenience themselves just to be at Whitney's funeral and may not even be able to see her just to show respect. I think it's a selfish move. They can keep both, a pubic memorial and a private funeral

Feb. 15 2012 04:49 PM
glork from Glen Ridge NJ

Interesting. Clearly, when the families of celebrities elect to distance themselves from the public, the public must understand that we, the fans, are/were always meaningless to them. Yet it was the public that made many celebrities "public figures" and it was, as well, the families who assisted in virtually killing themselves to put their family member (ie, "commodity/ merchandise") into the public eye for that fame and money. Alas, they no longer need us or our last respects. Thank you, Mr. Carella for clarifying this- I used to believe that a dimension of the funeral process itself was "for the living".

Feb. 15 2012 08:51 AM

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