South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the main eulogy during the service at St. George’s Cathedral. Tutu’s body will be cremated in a private ceremony after Saturday’s requiem mass and will then be interred behind the pulpit at the cathedral.
For decades, Tutu was one of the primary voices pushing the South African government to end apartheid, the country’s official policy of racial segregation. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, before apartheid ended in the early 1990s and the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president.
The revered anti-apartheid fighter will be remembered as one of the most important voices of the 20th century. However, his funeral was set to be subdued: Before he died, Tutu asked for a simple service and the cheapest available coffin, according to two of his foundations.
Reverend Michael Nuttall, the retired Bishop of Natal who was once Tutu’s deputy, delivered the main sermon, calling Tutu a “giant among us morally and spiritually.”
His voice breaking at times, Nuttal said being Tutu’s deputy between 1989 and 1996 “struck a chord perhaps in the hearts and minds of many people: a dynamic Black leader and his White deputy in the dying years of apartheid; and hey presto, the heavens did not collapse. We were a foretaste, if you like, of what could be in our wayward, divided nation.”
Tutu’s funeral was limited to just 100 people, in line with current South African government Covid-19 regulations. St George’s Cathedral has appealed to South Africans to attend the services in their local communities instead of traveling to Cape Town.
Events were planned throughout the country to give South Africans the opportunity to collectively mourn ‘”the Arch,” as he was known, while still practicing social distancing.
A week-long remembrance began Monday with the ringing of the bells at St. George’s Cathedral, a church famous for its role in the resistance against apartheid rule. St. George’s held a special place in the late archbishop’s heart, so much so that he requested his ashes be interred there in a special repository.
Tutu was born October 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a town in South Africa’s Transvaal province, the son of a teacher and a domestic worker. Tutu had plans to become a doctor, partly thanks to a boyhood bout of tuberculosis, which put him in the hospital for more than a year, and even qualified for medical school, he said.
But his parents couldn’t afford the fees, so he turned to teaching.
“The government was giving scholarships for people who wanted to become teachers,” he told the Academy of Achievement. “I became a teacher and I haven’t regretted that.”
However, he was horrified at the state of Black South African schools, and even more horrified when the Bantu Education Act was passed in 1953 that racially segregated the nation’s education system. He resigned in protest. Not long after, the Bishop of Johannesburg agreed to accept him for the priesthood — Tutu believed it was because he was a Black man with a university education, a rarity in the 1950s — and took up his new vocation.
He was ordained in 1960 and spent the ’60s and early ’70s alternating between London and South Africa. He returned to his home country for good in 1975, when he was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. As the government became increasingly oppressive — detaining Black people, establishing onerous laws — Tutu became increasingly outspoken.
CNN’s Larry Madowo, Chandler Thornton and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.