Under the scorching sun, a military escort accompanied his coffin to the burial site and took off the national flag that draped his casket. White wreaths sat around it.
His widow, Graca Machel, and others watched from under a tent as helicopters carrying flags whizzed past.
“Now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of God, your maker,” the officiator said.
Tribal leaders clad in animal skins joined dignitaries in dark suits at the burial grounds atop a hill overlooking Qunu valleys.
Before making their way to the site, mourners attended a service in a tent set up for the event. Ninety-five candles glowed behind his casket, one for each year of his life.
Mandela died December 5 after a recurring lung infection and declining health.
The service started with a somber military procession wheeling his casket into the tent. Residents watched and danced in what has become a familiar celebration of his life.
Inside the tent, the wall of candles flickered, casting a soft glow on tearful mourners.
And as the national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” or “God Bless Africa” drifted over the rolling hills, a giant picture of Mandela smiled down on mourners.
“Today marks the end of an extraordinary journey that began 95 years ago,” South African President Jacob Zuma said during the ceremony. “It is the end of 95 glorious years of a freedom fighter … a beacon of hope to all those fighting for a just and equitable world order.”
The president thanked Mandela’s family for sharing him with the world, and said his memory will live on.
“We shall not say goodbye, for you are not gone,” Zuma said. “You’ll live forever in our hearts and minds.”
About 4,500 people gathered in the tent, including Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, who occasionally dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. His ex-wife, Winnie Mandela, sat next to her.
‘I’ve lost a brother’
Mourners represented all spheres of Mandela’s life. There were celebrities, presidents, relatives and former political prisoners.
“You symbolize today and always will … qualities of forgiveness and reconciliation,” said a tearful Ahmed Kathrada, a close friend who served time in prison with Mandela for defying the apartheid government. “I’ve lost a brother. My life is in a void, and I don’t know who to turn to.”
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Prince Charles and business mogul Richard Branson were also among the attendees.
The funeral and burial cap 10 days of national mourning for a man whose fame transcended borders.
“Nelson Mandela was our leader, our hero, our icon and our father as much as he was yours,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said, regaling mourners with tales of a secret visit Mandela made in 1962 to Dar es Salaam to gather support for the ANC.
During his fight against apartheid, Mandela fled to Tanzania, which housed the headquarters of his party, the African National Congress. The white minority government had banned it in South Africa.
In sharp contrast to the days of apartheid, the events honoring Mandela included a great deal of pageantry, as well as state honors.
Mandela’s body arrived Saturday in the tiny village in the Eastern Cape province, where he grew up surrounded by lush, tranquil hills and velvety green grass.
Before its arrival in Qunu, it lay in state for three days in Pretoria. After an emotional service at the air base there, which included the handing over of his body to the ruling African National Congress, it was put in a military helicopter for the final leg of his journey.
Though he dined with kings and presidents in his lifetime, the international icon relished his time at the village. He herded cows and goats there as a child, and always said it’s where he felt most at peace. Some of his children are also buried there.
“He really believed this is where he belonged,” said his daughter, Maki Mandela.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for defying the racist apartheid government that led South Africa for decades. He emerged from prison in 1990 and became South Africa’s first black president four years later, all the while promoting forgiveness and reconciliation.
His defiance of white minority rule and long incarceration for fighting against segregation focused the world’s attention on apartheid, the legalized racial segregation enforced by the South African government until 1994.
Years after his 1999 retirement from the presidency, Mandela was considered the ideal head of state. He became a yardstick for African leaders, who consistently fell short when measured against him.
Following the service, family and friends will walk to the gravesite, overlooking the rural home he loved so much, to say goodbye.
In keeping with tradition, Mandela was laid to rest in the afternoon, when the sun is at its highest.
CNN’s Robyn Curnow contributed to this report from the Mandela compound in Qunu. Faith Karimi wrote and reported from Atlanta and Marie-Louise Gumuchian from London.