Unprecedented outpouring of grief at funeral for Vanuatu president

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Following a funeral service in the Parliamentary rotunda, beloved and admired President Baldwin Lonsdale was farewelled by a massive crowd lining the route to the airport. Image: Dan McGarry/Vanuatu Daily Post

By Dan McGarry in Port Vila

Vanuatu has never seen an outpouring of sorrow and admiration such as it witnessed yesterday.

Many alive today may not see another in their lifetime.

Heads of state from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia all attended the state funeral, which was held in the Parliamentary rotunda, commonly known as the “pig’s tusk” because of its spiral architecture.

They were joined by dignitaries from China, the United States of America, Tonga and elsewhere.

The service for President Baldwin Lonsdale, who died early last Saturday morning, was offered by the Bishop of Melanesia — out of deference to Rev Lonsdale’s status as a clergyman in the Anglican church.

In front of a solemn gathering that included Vanuatu’s living former Presidents, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, his ministers and MPs.

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Opposition Leader Ishmael Kalsakau and hundreds of people from all walks of life, the choir opened the service with a moving musical rendition of the 23rd Psalm.

Outside Parliament, thousands of school children and members of the public lined the road, waiting for the cortege that would escort the body of the late President to the airport, where it would be flown to the Banks islands, his home.

Festooned with flowers
Following the service, Rev Lonsdale’s casket was loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck festooned with flowers and the Vanuatu flag. It led a kilometre-long procession of hundreds of vehicles through the main streets of Port Vila.

The road was carpeted with flowers all along the procession route. In the Manples area, the road was lined with brightly coloured calicos. As the procession passed, the market vendors sang a song in the Tongoan language, a moving tribute to one of the most widely respected figures in Vanuatu since Father Walter Lini, the country’s first Prime Minister.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who lined the roughly six-kilometre long route, but there has been no similar public gathering in living memory.

This unprecedented display of grief and admiration was not limited to Vanuatu alone. In solidarity with this nation, flags flew at half mast yesterday in Australia, New Zealand and in other locations throughout the Pacific Islands.

The body was flown to the Banks islands yesterday, and the President will be mourned by the people of Torba province today. His body will be laid to rest in Sola, Vanua Lava tomorrow.

Dan McGarry is media director for the Vanuatu Daily Post group.

President Baldwin’s coffin draped with the Vanuatu flag at the funeral in Port Vila yesterday. Image: Selwyn Leodoro/FB
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