QUNU, SOUTH AFRICA (CNN) – With military pomp and traditional rituals, South Africa buried Nelson Mandela on Sunday, the end of an exceptional journey for the prisoner turned president who transformed the nation. Mandela was laid to rest in his childhood village of Qunu.
Tribal leaders clad in animal skins joined dignitaries in dark suits at the grave site overlooking the rolling green hills.
As pallbearers walked toward the site after a funeral ceremony, helicopters whizzed past dangling the national flag. Cannons fired a 21-gun salute, its echoes ringing over the quiet village.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief as she watched the proceedings.
“Yours was truly a long walk to freedom. Now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of God, your maker,” an officiator at the grave site said.
Military pallbearers gently removed the South African flag that draped the coffin and handed it to President Jacob Zuma, who gave it to Mandela’s family.At the request of the family, the lowering of the casket was closed to the media.
Before making their way to the grave site, mourners attended a service in a tent set up at the family compound. They wept, sang and danced in what has become a familiar celebration of his life.
Mandela’s coffin, draped in his country’s flag, lay atop black and white cattle skins in front of a crescent of 95 candles, each marking a year of his life. As the national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” or “God Bless Africa” drifted over the village, a giant picture of Mandela looked down with a smile. Mourners placed their fists on their chests, some with tears streaming down their faces. “Today marks the end of an extraordinary journey that began 95 years ago,” Zuma said during the ceremony. “It is the end of 95 glorious years of a freedom fighter … a beacon of hope to all those fighting for a just and equitable world order.”
The president thanked Mandela’s family for sharing him with the world and said his memory will live on.
“We shall not say goodbye, for you are not gone,” Zuma said. “You’ll live forever in our hearts and minds.”
About 4,500 people gathered in the tent, including Machel, who sat next to Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Mandela.
In other major cities including Johannesburg, crowds watched the funeral at special screenings in stadiums.