QUNU, South Africa — After the sermon was read, the 21-gun salute thudded and the "Last Post" played, Nelson Mandela was laid to rest Sunday in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape where he was born, leaving South Africans with a gaping sense that they will never see a leader as great as him again.
The crowds left his grave site, a host of luxury vehicles drove away and a chilling downpour of rain blew in.
About 4,500 mourners filled a vast domed tent for the state funeral, with relatives, princes, African leaders, celebrities and members of Mandela's ruling African National Congress arriving from dawn onward to say goodbye one last time.
Mandela was buried close to the graves of three of his children, on a hillside between his homestead and a highway in the small rural village of Qunu.
The eulogies captured not just the freedom fighter who embraced violence to answer the brutality of apartheid and the later peacemaker who bridged the divisions of his racially divided nation, but also the personal side of Mandela: his love of children, generosity, mischievous sense of humor and humility.
President Jacob Zuma sat between Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, both wearing black turbans. Some of the mourners, who included Britain's Prince Charles, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wept during the service. Many stared numbly ahead.
Those who couldn't be there watched on big screens in parks, squares and stadiums around the country.
For many South Africans, the burial was a wrenching moment of separation, a time that many had sensed was coming when Mandela sickened in June from a recurrent lung infection and never fully recovered.
"When the coffin went down, I felt as if it was the end of my life," said Neziwe Geledwana, 20, of Qunu, who watched the service on television at her neighbors' house. "I had a bad feeling but I accept that he's gone. He will not come back.
"I think our life is over because the one who fought for our freedom is gone."
As anxiety over the impact of Mandela's death played out across South Africa, one of his oldest friends and former fellow prisoner, Ahmed Kathrada, conveyed the nation's devastating sense of loss.
Choked with emotion, Kathrada said he lost a father when anti-apartheid hero Walter Sisulu died in 2003. "Now I have lost a brother. My life is a void. I don't know who to turn to," he said.
Although Mandela's death has no direct political role — he has been out of politics for years — the ANC, which has governed South Africa for 19 years, faces its first election next year without the iconic leader around.
Zuma and other party leaders, stunned when the current president was booed at Mandela's memorial service Tuesday, have to balance the desire to play on Mandela's legacy as a proven vote-getter with the fact that Zuma — with his troubled record on corruption and the delivery of basic services — compares so poorly with the late president and his saintly image.
Zuma took a more charismatic, personal approach Sunday than during his appearance at Tuesday's memorial, electrifying mourners when he sang "Thina Sizwe," a noted song about the struggles of blacks to regain their land.
"Tata, it has been a long, painful week for us, your people, your comrades, your relatives, your friends," he said, using the affectionate term for "father" that most South Africans favor when speaking of Mandela. He paid tribute to the tens of thousands of people who lined up in Pretoria to see Mandela lying in state from Wednesday to Friday, even to catch just a glimpse of his casket.
"As we observed the long, patient queues to the Union Buildings, some silent, some singing, many crying, we asked ourselves, 'What is it about this man that elicits this outpouring of sincere emotion?' The answer is that when people see goodness in a person, they respond by reflecting goodness back at that person and at their fellow men and women."
He described Mandela's hatred of racial discrimination, and yet noted, "You forgave those who took away most of your adult life and who dehumanized the majority of your compatriots."
"We want today to express two simple words: Thank you, thank you for being everything we wanted and needed as a leader during a difficult period of our lives," he said.
After the criticism Zuma faced from mourning South Africans last week, his eulogy seemed designed to neutralize the damage, pledging to follow Mandela's example. "We commit to work more intensively to deal a decisive blow against the persistent poverty, unemployment and inequality," Zuma said.
Nandi Mandela portrayed her grandfather as loving, mischievous, fun and full of love for his family.
She said he made sure every member of the extended family got a decent education. He put on a Christmas party for all the children in the village every year, giving every child a gift and lunch.
"We also want to do good because he has led by example and doing good," she said.
She added that her grandfather was a great storyteller who entertained the family with tales at dinner that usually involved laughing at himself. One told of when he was young, trying to impress a girl as he ate chicken on a plate. Each time he tried to spear a piece of chicken with his fork, it skidded away, to his mortification.
He once mischievously asked a young woman what she thought of his grandson, Ndaba. She replied that he was too young.
The coffin, draped in a South African flag, was placed below the center of the stage throughout the service, as speakers paid tribute. A recording of children singing was played, to mark his love of the young.
A beautiful, honeyed hymn then accompanied the casket as it left the tent, borne uphill on a gun carriage to be buried.
And he was gone.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times