Let's Talk About Dying 8: They Buried They're Hero Featured

By Helena Dolny

Published by City Press 18 August 2013

Let's Talk About Dying 8: They Buried They're Hero

Andrew Khehla Lukhele, founder president of National Stokvels Association of South Africa e-mailed the following question to me:

“Joe Slovo made a valiant attempt to make a statement of reasonable, chaste, prudent and dignified arrangements for funerals by being buried in a pine box in Avalon cemetery. I would like to know how difficult was it for the family to accept the decision to have Joe Slovo buried in Soweto and what were his views on lavish funerals?”

Lukhele refers to Dr Molefe Tsele of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) “Changing foolish expenditure is all about education, and unfortunately we have not seen a high profile person having an ethical funeral that is not exhibitionist.”

Pastor Thami Kambule also wrote of his concern that people are, “wasting a lot of money on buying expensive coffins.”

Joe grew up as Jewish but lived his adult life as an atheist. He remained culturally Jewish: his humour, his stories and the food he most enjoyed. Joe’s lifestyle choices were modest, but in choosing the modest coffin was Joe, in all honesty, making a statement? Jews are always buried in a plain pine box.

Childhood shapes us and then as adults we can choose what to keep, to drop, or adopt. Joe’s choices, as a white South African, were unusual; his burial in Soweto in Avalon cemetery is appropriate.

Activist Thenjiwe Mtintso writes about meeting Joe when her thinking was still influenced by Black Consciousness. “I have never met Slovo (before), and don’t know what he looks like. A white man comes into the meeting. He sits with Jacob Zuma and eats the brown bread and jam with us. I sit there, looking at him, eating and I am thinking, “these whites, there’s no reason for them to be involved.”

However Joe’s way of being makes an impact: “I note that on Slovo’s part there is an eagerness and keenness to listen. The way he does not interrupt, does not impose, begins to make me feel different. I am being listened to and I feel a sense of confidence and self-importance

Thenjiwe describes camps in Angola and eating meals with Joe of egg powder and “Mugabe” – tinned stuff sent from Zimbabwe – horrible stuff that smelt, that seemed to be tripe and innards. “There was no fuss, no complaint. I realized then the extent of the choices he had made.” Joe Slovo. The Unfinished Autobiography

What I appreciated most about Joe’s funeral were the choices made by others, men and women of different races and religions, about what would symbolically befit the man they worked with.

I discovered the grave was made ready as if Joe were an African person. My late husband was buried with a reed sleeping mat, seeds, a bowl and eating utensils – symbolic of the things needed to get off to a good start in the next life.

Journalist Mark Gevisser described driving to Avalon and a young black man who “rushed up to me, carrying a stone. ‘I’m not going to make it there in time,’ he cried. ‘Please put this stone on the grave for me’.” The stone leaving tribute is both an African and Jewish tradition. People came out of their houses with buckets of water as the hearse passed by–sprinkling water is a universal symbol of purity.

After the funeral people were invited home and on arriving were welcomed and offered bowls of water containing pieces of cut aloe- more symbolism of purification and wishing good fortune.

Author Walter Anderson describes such a conjuncture of traditions as “cultural chaos and creativity” and asks “What gives people permission to tinker – mixing rituals and traditions like greens in a salad?”

My mother told me she wants “Shalom” added to the tombstone she will share with my late father. Why? Why would my Catholic mother want a Hebrew word on her tombstone? It is indeed a beautiful word meaning ”peace” encompassing feelings of contentment, completeness, wholeness, well-being and harmony.

The question, “Why not?” serves us better in making choices to be more open, respectful even adopting of others traditions, especially in the pluralist society we live in. If I had insisted on a Jewish burial for Joe in Westpark cemetery it would have been neither true to him nor to those who shared his life and aspirations.

When it’s a funeral of a public figure, the family has to creatively find its own space for private mourning. It was right for our family to acknowledge that Joe, like other servant leaders, had a place in people’s hearts and who also needed to say their goodbyes.  This is the challenge we will face as a nation: how will the state create space for us to mourn whilst ensuring enough privacy for the Mandela family’s more personal grief?

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