South Africans flocked to Cape Town’s cathedral on Thursday to pay their last respects to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid icon revered the world over, whose body lay in a modest pine coffin.
Six Anglican clergymen carried the coffin to St. George’s Cathedral, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner once criticized the white government and was archbishop.
A small bouquet of carnations lay on the simple casket, in keeping with the wishes for modesty expressed by the much-loved human rights defender.
In stark contrast, typical funerals in South Africa are complicated and expensive affairs.
The tireless spiritual and political leader passed away peacefully at the age of 90 on Sunday. He will be cremated and his ashes will be buried on Saturday.
Tutu’s body will remain in state on Thursday and Friday to allow as many people as possible to say goodbye for good.
Ordinary South Africans of all races and ages flocked into South Africa’s oldest cathedral as soon as the doors were opened to the public.
Among them was Liz Cowan, a 65-year-old white social worker, who grew up in apartheid South Africa and was told that the charismatic black cleric was a dangerous man.
“He was so vilified. It was only when I was a teenager that I realized he was a nice guy, “she recalled, standing in a queue that reflected a country that Tutu dubbed the” Rainbow Nation. ”
A young woman in a purple blouse paused briefly before the coffin, making the sign of the cross in the Christian tradition.
Among the mourners was a woman wearing a purple Muslim veil, the color many are wearing to evoke the characteristic clerical robes of Tutu.
“He never saw you as a person of color or of any other denomination. You were all, as he always said, the ‘rainbow people,’ “said Lucille Helleger, director of the Anglican Women’s Fellowship Group in Cape Town.
Early Thursday, the church held a private service for the family, including Tutu’s widow Leah.
The coffin was opened for the family to view the body and they sang the late archbishop’s favorite hymn, according to Tutu’s successor, Thabo Makgoba.
After a private cremation, Tutu’s ashes will be interred inside the cathedral, whose bells have been tolling in his memory for 10 minutes at noon every day since Monday.
Tutu retired as archbishop after 10 years in 1996 and went on to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa’s dark past as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which laid out the horrors of apartheid in terrifying detail.
>> Desmond Tutu’s truth commission opted for ‘restorative’ justice over retribution after apartheid
South Africa is celebrating a week of mourning for Tutu, with the country’s multi-colored flag flying at half mast across the country and ceremonies taking place every day until the funeral.
A memorial event organized by his foundation on Thursday heard from some of Tutu’s closest friends and associates, including Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel.
“I have also had the privilege of being very close to many of those who have left now,” Machel said. Now “I feel like a part of me has been stung, stung, stung one by one as they go on,” he said.
Tutu and Mandela forged a lifelong bond fighting to end apartheid.
Mandela’s eldest grandson, Mandla, called for steps to improve the situation for people in democratic South Africa.
“We cannot stand by and wonder when the failed insurrection of July 2021 will bring about the next nasty chapter of chaos, chaos and destruction,” Mandela said. “We must, as a collective, put out the fire … of poverty, inequality and unemployment.”
He was referring to the riots sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma out of contempt, the worst violence that has gripped South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Saturday’s funeral will be simple according to Tutu’s wishes.
“He did not want ostentation or lavish spending,” his foundation said, adding that Tutu even “asked for the casket to be the cheapest available.”
Weakened by old age and prostate cancer, Tutu had retired from public life in recent years.
He is survived by his wife Leah and four children.