More than 30,000 mourners, many weeping openly, attended the elaborate, flower-strewn funeral in South Korea Saturday of their “messiah” and Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon.
In a ceremony that had all the trappings of a state funeral, Moon’s carved, red-lacquer coffin was carried by men in military-style uniforms into a stadium at the church headquarters in Gapyeong, 60 kilometers (35 miles) east of Seoul.
The vast, covered arena, dominated by an altar where a giant portrait of Moon stood on a landscaped bank of floral tributes, was packed to capacity with church members — thousands of whom had flown in from overseas.
Many sobbed quietly as the honor guard, accompanied by members of Moon’s immediate family, moved through the stadium and placed the coffin at the foot of the portrait.
Moon died of complications from pneumonia on September 3 aged 92.
His church, whose members were mocked as “Moonies” by the media, was renowned for its mass weddings of thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of couples and for its multi-billion-dollar business interests.
Over the past 10 days, more than 150,000 mourners have passed through the stadium to pay their last respects at Moon’s portrait before his burial Saturday on a hillside overlooking the sprawling Gapyeong complex.
The eulogies were led by the youngest of Moon’s seven sons and his spiritual successor, Hyung Jin Moon, who vowed to continue the work of the “true father, savior and messiah” following his “transition into the spirit world.”
Revered by his followers but denounced by critics as a cult-building charlatan who brainwashed church members, Moon was a deeply divisive figure whose shadowy business dealings saw him jailed in the United States.
The teachings of the Unification Church are based on the Bible but with new interpretations, and Moon saw his role as completing the unfulfilled mission of Jesus to restore humanity to a state of “sinless” purity.
While it claims a worldwide following of three million, experts suggest the core membership is far smaller although it still carries a commercial clout that allows the church to punch way above its doctrinal weight.
“I’m very sad. As I had been praying a lot for him, I thought he would live longer. But he passed away so suddenly,” said Anja Brina, a mourner from Germany.
“He was not a god. I think he was like a messiah, through whom you can reach God,” Brina said.
“He was the reason for my existence as he coupled my father and mother,” said Hur Yuna, 18, whose Japanese and Korean parents married after being personally paired off by Moon.
The church often paired couples from different nationalities with no common culture or language, in the belief that it promoted the universality of mankind and Moon’s teachings.
The sobbing in the stadium rose to a wail at one point as Moon’s close aide, Bo Hi Pak, broke down while addressing the congregation and spoke of his desire to see Moon’s face “one last time”.
“God. Today the messiah you’ve sent to us is going back to you,” he said.
The funeral was webcast live on the church website and shown on giant screens erected around the Gapyeong compound.
Born to a farming family in 1920 in what is now North Korea, Moon said he had a vision aged 15 in which Jesus asked him to complete his work on Earth.
Rejected by Korean Protestant churches, he founded the Unification Church in 1954 — a year after the Korean War.
As the church rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, spreading to the United States, it spawned a multi-billion dollar business empire encompassing construction, food, education, the media and even a professional football club.
Media holdings include the Washington Times newspaper and United Press International news agency, and it also dominates the fishing and distribution industry supplying sushi outlets in the United States.
Throughout his life, Moon assiduously courted political leaders in what critics said was a bid to lend legitimacy to his church which has been condemned as heretical by some Christian organizations.
Without Moon’s unifying presence, some experts see potential for conflict between his sons who control the church’s religious and business arms and who do not command the same loyalty as their father from overseas chapters.