Graveyard Shift: The Joy of Volunteering

By Jonathan Felix, Operations Manager – CITW and Nedbank Tour de Tuli Fundraising

In the early stages of lockdown, I was starting to feel low – as, no doubt, many of us did. I realised I needed to turn my attention and available time to something worthwhile and positive, and decided volunteering my time to a good cause would be the best option.

I’ve always been passionate about Johannesburg history; the old houses, and the old cemeteries, where I especially admire the stonemasonry skill that goes into a headstone. 

I’ve been a member of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) for some time and I felt this would be an ideal area to invest my available time.

I contacted the ‘Friends of Johannesburg Cemeteries’, who are part of the JHF, asking if they needed help in any way. In no time I was assisting and contributing my time to a good cause.

To name but a few activities, I have been involved in the following…

  • Finding graves of long lost relatives – enquiries which are received from all over the world.
  • Assisting with enquiries from people who are wanting to emigrate – and who require proof that their relative was in fact a foreign national (British mostly).
  • Preparing themes for virtual cemetery tours; I recently undertook and held a discussion regarding casualties of the 1922 miners’ strike.
  • Organising and attending manual work parties for both Braamfontein and Brixton cemeteries. These trips involved general cemetery maintenance; turning over fallen headstones, cutting back overgrown trees and bushes, cleaning the headstones, and headstone repairs.

Actively being a part of the admin process and the practical refurbishing and preserving history has been very fulfilling and rewarding. 

I have come across many gravesites and felt privileged to read up on the life stories of many great people who were influential in the foundation phase of Johannesburg. I also found both my great grandparents’ graves in Brixton Cemetery; one of them died from the Spanish flu in 1918! This then lead me to start investigating my own family tree, spending many a late night looking for clues and trying to join the dots. I have managed to map out my family history back to the 1600s.

On one occasion – from a request received through the Friends of Johannesburg Cemeteries – we undertook a site visit to the Jewish section of Westpark Cemetery.  I came across the grave of our very own Russel Friedman. I was so moved to see it, and the process of being as involved as I have been was brought so much closer to home. I reflected on the man Russel was, and considered the advice he may have given to the Wilderness Safaris staff in this difficult and uncertain time.  

Being a volunteer and support to the Friends of Johannesburg Cemeteries has motivated me during a time where I needed it the most, and I have met some wonderful people! I can only encourage you all to find, explore and invest your time in that which you are passionate about – it can only return an element of joy!