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Tutu’s death triggered grief among South Africans, world leaders, for a life spent fighting injustices.
South Africa has begun bidding farewell to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the last great hero of the struggle against apartheid, in a funeral stripped of pomp but freighted with tears and drenched in rain.
The funeral started with a hymn and a procession of clerics down the aisle burning incense and carrying candles in the church where Tutu will also be buried on Saturday.
Tutu died last Sunday aged 90, triggering grief among South Africans and tributes from world leaders for a life spent fighting injustice.
Famous for his modesty, Tutu gave instructions for a simple, no-frills ceremony, with a cheap coffin, donations for charity instead of floral tributes and an eco-friendly cremation.
The requiem mass started at 10am (08:00 GMT) at Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral where, for years, Tutu used the pulpit to rail against a brutal white minority regime.
That is where he will be buried.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will deliver the eulogy, accorded Tutu a special category funeral, usually designated for presidents and very important people.
He will also hand South Africa’s multicoloured flag to Tutu’s widow, Leah, in a reminder of her husband’s description of the post-apartheid country as the “rainbow nation”.
“When we were in the dark, he brought light,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican Church, said in a video message shown at a requiem Mass celebrated in Tutu’s honour on Saturday at St George’s Cathedral.
“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” Welby said. “South Africa has given us extraordinary examples of towering leaders of the rainbow nation with President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu … many Nobel winners’ lights have grown dimmer over time, but Archbishop Tutu’s has grown brighter.”
‘Soul is welcome’
South Africa has been marking a week of mourning, culminating with two days of lying in state.
Several thousand people, some of whom had travelled across the country, filed past a diminutive rope-handled coffin made of pine, adorned simply by a bunch of carnations.
Under a grey sky and drizzle, mourners were ushered into the cathedral. Rains, according to historian Khaya Ndwandwe “are a blessing” and shows that Tutu’s “soul is welcome” to heaven.
Mourners included close friends and family, clergy and a guests, including former Irish President Mary Robinson, who is to read a prayer.
Others mourners were Elita, the widow of the last apartheid leader FW de Klerk, who died in November.
Conspicously absent from the funeral is one of Tutu’s best friends, the Dalai Lama. He failed to travel due to advanced age and COVID restrictions, his representative Ngodup Dorjee, told AFP news agency outside the church.
Tutu’s longtime friend, retired bishop Michael Nuttall, who was Anglican Church dean when Tutu was the archbishop of Cape Town, will deliver the sermon.
The two forged a strong relationship, illustrating for many how a white leader could work for a Black leader. Nuttall went on write a memoir titled Tutu’s Number Two about their friendship.