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They were singing on the packed bus going in, but the ride back was silent, hushed by a fleeting glimpse of the man many had hoped would just keep living forever.
"I'm shaking. Really, I'm shaking," said Agisanang Ntoane as she walked down the steps of the grand, imposing Unions Building in Pretoria, the South African seat of government.
Just 20 minutes earlier, the 30-year-old, had been standing in a bus full of singing, clapping people, laughing and joking with each other like friends on a works outing.
But then the bus stopped, they got out, walked about 400 meters -- and everything changed.
The raised coffin stood under a simple, two-sided wooden canopy, which was six meters high but still dwarfed by the palatial grandeur of the government offices behind.
People were divided to walk on either side, and as they approached, the open-end of the casket became visible and then, as they passed, revealed the face of South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela, lying in state behind a convex, Perspex screen.
There was no hesitating allowed and each individual viewing of the anti-apartheid champion could not have lasted more than a few seconds.
But the effect was profound.
Some wept, and others buckled slightly, but for many there was just a sudden shock of recognition, followed immediately by the sharpest sense of loss since Mandela's death was announced last Thursday.
"It's like he wasn't that great figure, that icon from the television anymore," said Ntoane after she had collected herself.
"He was real. A real man, and it was as if I was seeing my own father there."
Reality of death
Public sorrow at the death of the man who helped consign apartheid to history, has partly been held in check by the desire to celebrate Mandela's unique life, hail his towering achievements and take pride in his extraordinary global appeal.
But unlike the at times raucous memorial service held in Soweto's World Cup stadium on Tuesday, the public viewing in Pretoria provided an intensely personal experience that brought home the reality of his death.
"I really, really desperately want to see him," said Dora Monyake, 58, as she stood in line for her chance to enter the complex where Mandela's historic presidential inauguration took place in 1994.
"I need to accept that he is gone," Monyake said.
Wednesday marked the beginning of a three-day lying in state, ahead of Mandela's actual burial on Sunday in his boyhood home of Qunu.
Most who chose the first day queued most of the morning in scorching sunshine with thousands of others at three selected venues where, after a cursory security check, they were boarded on to buses and driven to the Unions Building.
The 15-minute drive was an excitable affair, with a bus full of mostly strangers united by a single shared desire and eager to enjoy it together.
One middle-gad woman who had brought a homemade cake was mercilessly teased about who she was planning to give it to.
"I don't know. I didn't really think about that. It just seemed the right thing to do" she said. "Someone there might be hungry."
For Bheki Methalu, 38, there was a special frisson as the bus pulled in through the gates of the Unions Building compound, where 20,000 black women had protested in 1956 against the hated apartheid-era pass laws.
"Amazing really, that we've come from something like that to this -- paying our respects, here, to a black president," Methalu said.
From the moment people walked into the outdoor amphitheatre space where Mandela's casket had been placed, all talking stopped.
As they filed past the coffin, more than a few took advantage of the tissues being handed out on the other side by an attendant.
And then it was over. There were a few minutes when people stood quietly and looked down on the buildings of the South African capital, before they boarded the bus to return to the pick-up point.
"Listen to that," Ntoane's father said during the drive back. "No singing now."