Desmond Tutu's funeral takes place in Cape Town

Country mourns former archbishop who asked that ostentatious displays at the service be avoided

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South Africa on Saturday bid farewell to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning equality activist who was revered for his role in ending apartheid.

"When we were in the dark, he brought light,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Church, said in a video message shown at a Requiem Mass in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.

“For me to praise him is like a mouse giving tribute to an elephant,” he 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.”

The archbishop’s plain pine coffin, the cheapest available at his request to avoid any ostentatious displays, was the centre of the service.

Tutu, who died last Sunday at the age of 90, will be given a special low-carbon form of cremation and his ashes will be interred in the cathedral’s columbarium.

The dean of the cathedral, Michael Weeder, told AFP that Tutu had asked for "aquamation" – a process that supporters say releases just 10 per cent of climate-altering carbon dioxide gases compared with traditional cremation.

In aquamation, bodies are dissolved in a heated solution of water and alkali in a stainless steel vessel, leaving behind the bones, which are then turned to ash by cremation.

Ramaphosa tribute

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the main eulogy for Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his non-violent opposition to white minority rule.

Tutu's widow, Nomalizo Leah, known as "Mama Leah", sat in a wheelchair in the front row of the congregation, draped in a purple scarf, the colour of her husband's clerical robes. Mr Ramaphosa wore a matching necktie.

"If we are to understand a global icon to be someone of great moral stature, of exceptional qualities, and of service to humanity, there can be no doubt that it refers to the man we are laying to rest today," Mr Ramaphosa said.

He said the late archbishop was a "humble and brave human being" who advocated for the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden.

Mr Ramaphosa joked that had Tutu been present he would have said: "Hey! Why are you looking so glum? So unhappy?"

"He would have wanted to elicit a smile and laughter from all of us. That was the type of person that he was."

Retired Bishop Michael Nuttall, who served as Tutu's deputy for many years, also paid tribute. "Small in physical stature, he was a giant among us morally and spiritually," he said.

Life-size posters of Tutu, with his hands clasped, were placed outside the cathedral, where the number of congregants was restricted in line with Covid-19 measures.

At the end of the funeral service, the body was immediately removed from the church.

Under a grey sky and drizzle, among the mourners ushered into the cathedral were ex-Irish president Mary Robinson and Mandela's widow, Graca Machel. Both read out prayers.

Others included the widow of the last apartheid leader FW de Klerk, who died in November, and former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe.

Updated: January 01, 2022, 7:08 PM