Houston’s casket arrives at NJ church for funeral

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The hearse carrying Whitney Houston’s casket has arrived at the New Jersey church where her funeral is being held.

About 1,500 people were invited to the service Saturday at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. Houston sung in the church choir there as a child.

Houston died Feb. 11 in California, the day before the Grammy awards. She was 48.

A gospel choir was rehearsing in the church hours before the service, and roses and lilies surround the pulpit.

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Associated Press writer Alicia Quarles contributed to this report.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

To the world, Whitney Houston was the pop queen with the perfect voice, the dazzling diva with regal beauty, a troubled superstar suffering from addiction and, finally, another victim of the dark side of fame.

To her family and friends, she was just “Nippy.” A nickname given to Houston when she was a child, it stuck with her through adulthood and, later, would become the name of one of her companies. To them, she was a sister, a friend, a daughter, and a mother.

While the world remembers Houston from afar, those closest to her will gather Saturday at a private funeral to say goodbye. They come together at New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston wowed the congregation with her powerful voice even as a young girl.

A few fans gathered Saturday morning hours before the service as close as they could get to the church, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., and Miami. Others were more entrepreneurial, setting up card tables to sell silk-screened T-shirts with Houston’s image and her CDs. But only the invited would get close to the church; streets were closed to the public for blocks in every direction.

The service marks exactly one week after the 48-year-old Houston _ one of music’s all-time biggest stars _ was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel in California. A cause of death has yet to be determined.

Close family friend Aretha Franklin, whom Houston lovingly called “Aunt Ree,” is expected to sing at the service, as is Stevie Wonder and gospel star CeCe Winans. Music mogul Clive Davis, who launched and shepherded her career throughout the decades, may speak, along with Kevin Costner, her co-star in the blockbuster film “The Bodyguard.”

Her ex-husband Bobby Brown also is expected to attend, along with the couple’s only child, Bobbi Kristina.

Houston’s death marked the final chapter for the superstar whose fall from grace while shocking was years in the making. Houston had her first No. 1 hit by the time she was 22, followed by a flurry of No. 1 songs and multi-platinum records.

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