QUNU, South Africa — South Africa brought 10 days of mourning to a close Sunday as the body of Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at his ancestral home, where several thousand guests had gathered to bid a final farewell to the nation's "greatest son" and global icon.
The anti-apartheid leader was buried in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu, and his funeral service took place in a huge tent at the family compound on a hillside there not far from the house he built. A smaller, graveside service was attended by family members, heads of state and select officials.
As Mandela's coffin was lowered into the ground, military jets and helicopters displaying South African flags flew overhead.
"A great tree has fallen, he is now going home to rest with his forefathers," Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, a Mandela family spokesman, told mourners shortly after the larger ceremony — attended by around 4,500 people — got underway Sunday. "We thank them for lending us such an icon."
The funeral service in Qunu was attended by guests including senior South African officials, veterans of the fight against white rule and foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard. Britain's Prince Charles, entrepreneur Richard Branson, former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Oprah Winfrey were also among those who made the trip.
The songs and speeches in the tent ceremony were broadcast on big screens in the area, including at one spot on a hill overlooking Mandela's property.
Meanwhile, inside the tent Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela's close friend and a fellow prisoner at Robben Island for 26 years, eulogized the former statesman in a moving tribute, recalling the ex-president as a "tall, healthy, strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded pick and shovel." Kathrada said that Mandela "was my elder brother." As he finished speaking, Kathrada said: "My life is in a void and I don't know who to turn to." Kathrada choked back tears during the eulogy.
In keeping with tribal tradition, Mandela's body was expected to be buried at noon, "when the sun is at its highest and the shadow at its shortest," Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of the African National Congress, said during the ceremony. However, the service ran late, causing a 21-gun salute to take place in South Africa's capital Pretoria instead of Qunu, as planned.
Mandela's coffin was eventually lowered into the ground just before 12:45 p.m. local time while a military bugler played the "Last Post." That was followed by "Reveille."
Earlier, Mandela's portrait looked over the assembly in the white marquee from behind a bank of 95 candles representing each year of his life. His casket, draped in the national flag, was placed on a carpet of cow skins below a lectern where speakers delivered eulogies.
"I think all of us will agree today the person who lies here is South Africa's greatest son," said the ANC's Ramaphosa.
Addressing mourners, South African President Jacob Zuma pledged to "continue promoting non-racialism and tolerance in our country and to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all." He said that Sunday's funeral "marks the end of an extraordinary journey that started 95 years ago." As the president took to the podium loud cheers broke out, in contrast to the boos that Zuma received at the memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg last week. Zuma said that South Africans did not want to confront the reality of Mandela's mortality.
Speaking at the service, Nandi Mandela said her grandfather went barefoot to school in Qunu when he was a boy.
"It is to each of us to achieve anything you want in life," she said, recalling kind gestures by Mandela "that made all those around him also want to do good."
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."
Ahead of the ceremony, South African military honor guards marched and stood at attention on a dirt road as the guests arrived, and busloads of Zulu tribesman dressed in traditional warrior clothes wielded fighting sticks and shields.
The burial ends more than a week of mourning ceremonies that included a massive stadium memorial in Johannesburg and three days during which Mandela's body lay in state in the capital, Pretoria. He died Dec. 5 at the age of 95 in his Johannesburg home.