The news: Planning is underway for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The former South African president, activist, and revolutionary died on Thursday due to complications from a recurring lung infection. He was 95. The funeral is set to be among the largest of the past 100 years, with dignitaries, heads of state, and numerous notable political figures coming together to say goodbye to the legendary leader. George H.W. Bush, the Obamas, and the Clintons are all attending. In fact, some have speculated that the funeral will rival Pope John Paul II’s and Sir Winston Churchill’s in size.
The background: Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005 drew a crowd of at least 300,000 to Rome, and it is estimated that over 4 million people watched the event on screens set up throughout the city. Hundreds of heads of state paid their respect to the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, making the funeral the largest gathering of heads of state in history. People tuned into the event all around the world, making it difficult to gauge overall viewership. In Krakow, Poland, alone, 800,000 people gathered in a field to watch a televised version of the event. NPR reported that as many as 1 billion people are thought to have watched the ceremony.
Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral took place in 1965, in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. 321,360 people walked past the cataphalque in the Palace of Westminster during the three days the body was displayed. The ceremony was broadcast on the BBC, and people tuned in all over the world. Forty BBC cameras were set up along the procession’s route, to guarantee maximum coverage of the event. Crowds lined the streets in London, to catch a glimpse of the beloved leader’s egress from the palace to the cathedral.
The takeaway: Today, we are granted all-access passes to the lives of politicians and celebrities – participating in their funerals, whether in person, online, or through the media is the logical next step. While there has always been a somewhat morbid fascination with the life and times of iconic figures, whether they are politicians or actors, Mandela has become a symbol of anti-apartheid and the struggle for equality worldwide. Mandela was a true icon, and his death has affected millions worldwide - honoring him is as necessary as it is important. Yet it is important to focus on his legacy and his work, rather than fetishize his passing.