QUNU, South Africa — His flag-draped casket resting on a carpet of animal skins, Nelson Mandela was laid to rest Sunday in the green, rolling hills of the eastern hamlet where he began his extraordinary journey — one that led him from prison to the presidency, a global symbol of endurance and reconciliation in the fight against South Africa’s racist rule.
Artillery boomed and military aircraft roared through a cloud-studded sky, as the simple and the celebrated gathered to pay their final respects in Mandela’s native village of Qunu at a state funeral that blended ancient tribal rituals with a display of the might of the new, integrated South Africa.
“Yours was truly a long walk to freedom and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker,” Brig. Gen. Monwabisi Jamangile, chaplain-general of the South African military, said as Mandela’s casket was lowered into the ground at the family gravesite. “Rest in peace.”
“I realized that the old man is no more, no more with us,” said Bayanda Nyengule, head of a local museum about Mandela, his voice cracking as he described the burial attended by several hundred mourners after a larger funeral ceremony during which some 4,500 people, including heads of state, royalty and celebrities, paid their last respects.
The burial ended a 10-day mourning period that began with Mandela’s death on Dec. 5 at 95, and included a Johannesburg memorial attended by nearly 100 world leaders and three days during which tens of thousands of South Africans of all races and backgrounds filed past Mandela’s casket in the capital, Pretoria.
For South Africans, it was also a time for reflection about the racial integration they achieved when Mandela presided over the end of apartheid, and the economic inequality and other challenges that have yet to be overcome and seem certain to test his legacy’s endurance.
The burial site marked a return to Mandela’s humble roots, but the funeral trappings were elaborate. South African honor guards from the army, navy and air force, including both black and white officers, marched in formation along a winding dirt road.
In contrast to the military pomp, some speakers evoked the traditions of the Xhosa tribe, to which Mandela’s Thembu clan belongs.
“A great tree has fallen, he is now going home to rest with his forefathers,” said Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, a representative of Mandela’s family who wore an animal skin. “We thank them for lending us such an icon.”
Another speaker, Zolani Mkiva, served for many years as Mandela’s praise singer, a traditional role in which he shouted out the leader’s attributes to audiences, prefacing Mandela’s many stations in life with the words “very important:” person, prince, patriot, politician, prisoner, philosopher, president, pensioner, patient, papa.
“The bones of our ancestors are vibrating. The waves of African oceans are reverberating,” Mkiva said.
In keeping with Xhosa traditions, Mandela’s casket was brought to Qunu Saturday draped in a lion skin, an honor bestowed on those of a high rank like Mandela, who is the son of a traditional clan chief. His body lay for the night in his family home before burial, a time when tradition dictates that family elders “talk” to the body to explain to his spirit what is happening.
South African television showed Mandela’s casket at the family gravesite, but the broadcast was stopped just before the coffin was lowered into the ground at the request of the Mandela family, which often talked of how it had to share its patriarch with the nation and the world.
His body was buried around noon, “when the sun is at its highest and the shadow at its shortest,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress.
Mandela spent 27 years as a prisoner of apartheid, then emerged to lead a delicate transition to democracy when many South Africans feared the country would sink into all-out racial conflict. He became president in the first all-race elections in 1994 and served one five-year term.
At the funeral ceremony, Mandela’s portrait looked over the assembly from behind a bank of 95 candles representing each year of his life. His casket, transported to the tent on a gun carriage and draped in the national flag, rested on a carpet of cow skins.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were dressed in black Xhosa head wraps and dresses. Guests included veterans of the military wing of the ANC, as well as U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard and other foreign envoys.
Britain’s Prince Charles, Monaco’s Prince Albert II, Oprah Winfrey, billionaire businessman Richard Branson and former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai also were there.
At one spot overlooking Mandela’s compound, several hundred people gathered to watch the televised ceremony. A group of Zulu traditional dancers with spears and shields gathered nearby to pay their last respects to Mandela.
“He’s a first class guy in the world,” dancer Musa Ngunbane said.
Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island with Mandela, remembered his old friend’s “abundant reserves” of love, patience and tolerance. He said it was painful when he saw Mandela for the last time, months ago in his hospital bed.
“He tightly held my hand, it was profoundly heartbreaking,” Kathrada said, his voice breaking at times. “How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago and I recall the tall, healthy strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn’t do so.”
Recalling her grandfather’s simple roots, Nandi Mandela said he went barefoot to school as a boy in Qunu, where he herded cattle before eventually became president and a figure of global renown.
“It is to each of us to achieve anything you want in life,” she said.
In the Xhosa language, she referred to her grandfather by his clan name: “Go well, Madiba. Go well to the land of our ancestors, you have run your race.”