Whitney Houston's career may have taken her around the globe, but her final farewell took place where it all began: amid the pews of a small Baptist church in New Jersey.

The late singer's funeral was held Saturday afternoon in Newark's New Hope Baptist Church, where Houston sang to congregants long before she serenaded sold-out stadiums.

Mourners settled into pews as a choir dressed in white sang an emphatic rendition of "Grateful" by Hezekiah Walker. The spirited performance was one of the first of many musical tributes to Houston, with songs from singers Alicia Keys and R. Kelly to follow later in the service, which lasted more than three hours.

But after all the songs and testimonials, it was the sound of Houston's own voice at the end that unleashed her loved ones' raw emotions.

As pallbearers hoisted Houston's casket on their shoulders, the pop diva's biggest hit, ‘I Will Always Love You,' reverberated through the church.

The singer's mother, Cissy Houston, broke down behind the casket, wailing, ‘My baby! My baby!" Two women had to hold her up as she exited the church.

Houston's teenage daughter Bobbi Kristina was also crying uncontrollably in the slow procession. She had been poised throughout the long memorial service, often wiping her eyes behind dark sunglasses.

Hundreds had gathered to say goodbye to the once-bestselling star who died suddenly at age 48 last Saturday, on the eve of the Grammy Awards.

She was found unresponsive in the bathtub of her Beverly Hills hotel room. The cause of her death is still being investigated.

"We are here to mourn our loss, but to celebrate her life," Newark Mayor Cory Booker told the congregation at the start of the service.

Rev. Joe A. Carter began the funeral service by reading a bible passage from the Gospel of John. Houston's Baptist roots were referenced often in the proceedings, which were touted as a "home going" ceremony.

Only close friends and family members were invited to the ceremony, which in Houston's case, included music producer Clive Davis and actor Tyler Perry.

"You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime," Davis said of Houston when he took to the podium. The two were friends but also shared a mentor-student relationship.

Kevin Costner, who was Houston's co-star in the romantic 1992 action film "The Bodyguard," was also among those to share words of tribute.

His send-off revealed a more vulnerable side to Houston, who is often remembered by fans as the vivacious youth bopping in front of a light purple backdrop in the video for "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)."

Costner described how despite her fame, Houston frequently wondered if she was talented or pretty enough. He said he got a first-hand look at those anxieties when Houston was asked to do a screen test for "The Bodyguard."

Speaking directly to Houston, Costner wrapped up his tribute with: "You weren't just good enough, you were great."

Later on, gospel singer BeBe Winans equated Houston to family when he took to the podium to sing his hit "I Really Miss You." He was introduced by Houston's cousin, 1960s diva Dionne Warwick.

Several times in the ceremony, Warwick referred to Houston as "Nippy," a childhood nickname given to her by family members.

The service program included a letter from Cissy Houston to her daughter that read: "I never told you that when you were born, the Holy Spirit told me that you would not be with me long. And I thank God for the beautiful flower he allowed me to raise and cherish for 48 years."

"Rest, my baby girl in peace."

Close friend Aretha Franklin was expected to sing at the service, but later said she couldn't attend due to ill health. She told The Associated Press that she's been having persistent leg and foot problems.

To fans, Franklin is the Queen of Soul but in Houston's eyes she was "Aunt Ree," a congenial mentor. Franklin was scheduled to sing "The Greatest Love of All."

Even in her absence, the service was full of vigorous musical tributes including a performance from Stevie Wonder who had the audience clapping along to "Love's In Need Of Love Today."

Other performances included:

Alicia Keys singing "Send Me an Angel"

R. Kelly singing "I Look to You"

CeCe Winans singing "Don't Cry for Me"

Houston's ex-husband Bobby Brown was briefly among the funeral attendees. He stayed just long enough to touch Houston's casket and sit momentarily.

In a statement, Brown said he left early after he and his children were asked repeatedly to move from their seats. He said he opted to leave instead of making a scene.

Brown and Houston were married for 15 turbulent years, the latter half of which were rife with abuse allegations and highly public legal battles.

Before the service, roads around New Hope church were closed to prevent fans from trying to edge closer to the ceremony. Security was tightened two blocks to the north and south of the church and four blocks to the east and west.

Earlier, flags around New Jersey were lowered to half-staff for Houston, a move that drew the ire of critics who argued the honour should be reserved for those who died in patriotic service to the nation.

Gov. Chris Christie defended the action on Wednesday, saying that 48-year-old Houston has had a cultural impact on the area. He also dismissed criticism that Houston's public struggle with illicit drugs discounted "the good things that she did."

Houston will be buried in a plot next to her late father at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.

Though the service was invitation-only, it was broadcast and streamed live for fans who wanted to join in from a distance.