South Africa has bid Archbishop Desmond Tutu farewell in a funeral stripped of pomp but freighted with glowing tributes and showered with rain.
Tutu, who died last Sunday at the age of 90, was the last great hero of the fight against apartheid. His death sparked grief among South Africans and tributes from world leaders for a life spent fighting injustice.
On Saturday, family, friends, clergy and politicians gathered 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 laid to rest.
“Because we shared him with the world, you share part of the love you held for him with us, so we are thankful,” South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said.
“While our beloved (Nelson Mandela) was the father of our democracy, Archbishop Tutu was the spiritual father of our new nation.”
“His was a life lived honestly and completely. He has left the world a better place. We remember him with a smile,” Ramaphosa said before handing South Africa’s multicoloured flag to the “chief mourner“,Tutu’s widow, Leah.
The funeral held amid new year festivities across the globe marked the end of South Africa’s week of mourning during which people queued past a diminutive rope-handled casket made of pine, adorned by a plain bunch of carnations.
Among the mourners ushered into the cathedral were ex-Irish president Mary Robinson, and Mandela’s widow Graca Machel. Both read out prayers under a gray sky and drizzle.
Dalai Lama, Tutu’s close friend who doubles as the Tibetan spiritual leader, was conspicuously absent. According to a speech by his representative Ngodup Dorjee, he failed to travel due to advanced age and Covid restrictions.
Tutu’s long-time friend, retired bishop Michael Nuttall, who was Anglican Church dean when Tutu was the archbishop of Cape Town, delivered a sombre sermon.
“We were a foretaste… of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”
In the 1970s, Tutu became the emblem of the struggle as Mandela and other leaders were sentenced to decades in prison.
From his pulpit and from his home, Tutu slammed police violence against blacks. Only his robes saved him from prison and were a shield from police brutality for many protesters.
In 1994, after apartheid was dismantled and South Africa ushered in the first free elections, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the past in grim detail.
Those who knew him say Tutu’s moral firmness and passion went hand-in-hand with self-deprecatory humour and a famously cackling laugh.
“He taught us all what love is. And I loved his humour! Very witty,” said 63-year-old housewife Washilah Isaacs, adding that she also liked Tutu’s support for Palestine.
TUTU’S BODY TO BE AQUAMATED
In line with Tutu’s wishes, his body will be aquamated in a private ceremony after the requiem Mass and interred behind the pulpit.
Aquamation, also referred to as alkaline hydrolysis, is a water-based cremation process that is commonly used to dispose of human or pet remains.
It is considered more eco-friendly compared to flame-based cremation as it uses less fossil fuels and produces fewer emissions.
The process is commonly misunderstood as dissolving a body in acid – this is not the case.
THE AQUAMATION PROCESS
First, the body is placed in a silk bag, and then put in an Alkaline Hydrosis Machine – this is basically a metal tube containing a high-pressure mixture of water and potassium hydroxide heated up to 150°C for about one and a half hours.
The body tissue is dissolved in the process and only the bones remain. These are rinsed at 120°C, dried and ground to powder using a cremulator.
The ‘ashes’ are then handed to the bereaved family. The ashes can either be kept, buried or scattered as per the dead person’s wishes or the family in case the deceased did not specify.
Desmond Tutu wished to be interred behind the pulpit at the St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. He had served at the Anglican Diocese as Archbishop for 35 years.