In Death, a Celebration of Life


The hearts of the world were fused with South Africa this weekend as the news of the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spread. We awoke early Friday morning to a grey, overcast day to hear that at the grand age of 95, this great light made a peaceful transition into the next world from his home just a few blocks from our own.

For many months since Mandela’s health scare last June, rumours had been circulating that he had actually already passed away and the powers at be were withholding that information. I did not want to believe that the leadership of the country would prevent a national mourning of their “Tata Madiba”- that sounded cruel and heartless. I wanted to believe that at the moment of his death, the floodgates would open, the tears would flow and the heart of the nation would come together.

It did.

And then there was the dancing.

At Jewish burial ceremonies I have always felt that something was missing- the overwhelming pain of loss is there, as is the confrontation with our own mortality standing next to an open grave. At Jewish houses of mourning even the stories that are told of the people who have passed are mostly overshadowed by an enormous grieving. What has never been palpable at Jewish burials or in Jewish houses of mourning is an experience of joy in celebrating the life that was lived, the contributions made, the hearts touched.

I spent the weekend outside of Mandela’s Houghton home, with scores of other South African’s who came to show their respect to this great man who, the current mantra of mourners sings, “gave us our freedom”. How can one not rejoice for the life of the one who gave such freedom to the masses? One of the “Greatest sons of Africa” as he is bring called on the radio. How can one not dance, not raise voices to honour this greatest of gifts that he gave? “We sing,” a young black African girl shared, “in our joy and in our sorrow”.

I made my way into the whirling center of mourners and joined hands with those around me. Engulfed in liberation movement songs, I hummed along to the melodies, my body swaying with the crowd, my heart soaring and unified with those around me.

It was a surreal scene straight out of messianic times: A white woman taking a photograph with a group of black policeman, black maids and white employers embracing. Representatives of the “Neo Black Movement” and the ANC smiling at my daughter and telling me “she is so cute”. And my husband, tears in his eyes, holding our daughter up proudly on his shoulders showing her the legacy she has inherited.

Our daughter will never know apartheid.

In joining the masses of mourners in celebrating the life of Mandela, I have learned that this gift of freedom has not been taken for granted. Each member of your beloved country owns and cherishes your gift. Thank you Mandela for this gift, and for the privilege of bearing witness to your people at one of their finest hours.

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