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 about 4,500 people, including heads of state, royalty, and celebrities, paid their last respects.
The burial ended a 10-day mourning period for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, that 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 his casket in 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.
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.
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 antiapartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island with Mandela, remembered his old friend's "abundant reserves" of love, patience, and tolerance.
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.