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Culture and death

19 May 2009

My post about gated communities and culture has had a rather bizzarre spin-off that has got me thinking about the issue of death and culture. There was some discussion on the question of gated communities and Christian mission in one forum where I had mentioend it, in the course of which someone remarked

I’m not sure about the outreach to those within gated communities never having lived in one and not really knowing the dynamics or lack thereof for community interaction.    However, there has been some introduction into Orthodox parishes of home study groups, led by trained study leaders…

Another parallel approach is to have a service, such as an Akathist, Evening Prayers, or Typica served by either a lay person or deacon.  There is a study and fellowship time associated with this activity… These activities are held in places such as funeral homes, library rooms, small halls, or on occassion, homes.    For these kinds of mission level activities to happen within a gated community, I think that one needs to have someone already living within a gated community or know well someone living there to begin such a

It was the bit about funeral homes that stopped me short.

First, because I can’t imagine any gated community having a funeral home within it, and secondly because it would never have occurred to me that any Christian group would want to meet in a funeral home. I remarked, in response to that, that it seemed a bit macabre to me, and was surprised to discover that it was quite common for Orthodox mission parishes in the USA to begin meeting in funeral homes, and that no one seemed to think it at all strange. Someone even compared it to the custom of early Christians to meet in the catacombs, and to celebrate the Eucharist on the tombs of the martyrs.

american-way-of-deathSo it seems that there are big cultural differences between the USA and South Africa in the way that people regard funeral homes. Or is it just me? Is it just my idiosyncratic culture, perhaps fostered by reading too many books like Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one and Jessica Mitford’s The American way of death. I haven’t read the revised edition of the latter, but perhaps I should.

In a former life, when I was an Anglican, I was sometimes asked to lead funeral services in funeral parlour chapels, and I found them the most depressing places imaginable, and the funerals held in them just as depressing. There were also standing jokes about the clergy who used to hang around such places on their days off, on the off chance of picking up the fee from the service for some non-churchgoer whose relatives didn’t know any clergy. That too was depressing.

I tried to analyse the reasons for my aversion to such places, and came to the conclusion that one of the main reasons was that funeral parlour chapels were used for nothing else.

When the funeral is held in a church building, it is a place for good times and bad times. One is baptised there, married there, joined in fellowship there, and it seems fitting that one should depart from a place where one has experienced both the joys and sorrows of life. But a funeral home chapel is used for nothing else. It is a place of departure from nothing to nowhere.

Seen like that, of course, the practice of some Orthodox mission parishes in the USA of holding their services in funeral home chapels could be seen are mission on the frontiers in every sense — retaking the abandoned places of empire.

And gated communities seem to have a similar characteristic, which makes for a kind of one-dimensional life. Most of them have no shops, no churches, no schools, and no funeral homes. There is a sense in which they are a regression to the medieval walled town, for protection against armed raiders, with security companies becoming like the lord of the castle who provides protective services — at a price, of course. But the medieval towns at least had markets, shops and trade. They usually had a church, and there was a kind of community. The modern gated communities are like hostels, or compounds, as they used to be called. In fact they are compounds. And to find any of those other things, one has to leave them.

Gated communities and funeral homes alike seem to be one dimensional and sterile, and so part of Christian mission might be to try to bring life into such places, which are, in different ways, dominated by the culture of death.

But still I shy away from funeral homes.

Some years ago my mother died. She had worked at an Anglican Church hospital in rural Zululand, but when she was taken ill she was transferred to a bigger hospital in Durban for specialised treatment, and she died there. We dr0ve 500 km through the night to Melmoth, the village nearest St Mary’s Hospital, where my mother had worked, and where we had lived a few years previously.

We went to Zululand Hardware, and bought a coffin for R40. It was a plain pine job, with no handles, covered with green mould from being stored out in the yard. We bought handles at the same shop, and asked a friend who did woodwork as a hobby to put the handles on for us. He was also the self-supporting priest in the local parish. He sanded down the coffin to get rid of the mould, and our son (then 2 years old) scribbled on it with a carpenter’s pencil. Our friend, Graham Langley, wanted to remove that too, but we said leave it, his granny would like it.

We borrowed a bakkie (pick up truck, ute) from a friend, and, with the coffin in the back, drove 200 km to Durban to fetch my mother’s body. There was red tape to deal with (that’s one of the only things where one can miss the services of undertakers) — registering the death, getting a permit to move the body etc. We drove back to Memoth, and had the funeral service in the local church where my mother had worshipped. Local people in the parish dug the grave, and she was buried at KwaMagawaza, where the hospital and a church conference centre were. After the burial the people at the funeral filled in the grave, and we had food for people who had come from a distance.

No funeral home, and it felt more real and more human. My mother was not buried by strangers, but by people who had known her, by the community.

Filling in the grave at my mother's funeral, KwaMagwaza, Zululand, 29 November 1983

Filling in the grave at my mother’s funeral, KwaMagwaza, Zululand, 29 November 1983. No plastic grass, or other kitsch sepulchral haberdashery.

Move fast-forward to our Orthodox parish in Johannesburg some years later.

One of our younger members, Benjamin (Gustav) Prinsloo, was killed in a car accident. He had been baptised the previous Pascha, and on the previous Sunday was sponsor to two of his friends who were admitted as catechumens, and on the way home from church he was killed.

His coffin was in the church where he had been the previous Sunday. The funeral service was held there, and not in an impersonal funeral home. And when the service in church was over most of the congregation drove 250 km to the little village of Petrus Steyn, where his parents lived, and he was buried there, and the congregation filled in the grave while we sang “Memory eternal”. The following Pascha 11 people were baptised, many of them friends of Benjamin, because they had been so moved by the funeral that they decided to become Orthodox. Again, not an undertaker in sight.

In South Africa generally funeral customs are driven by undertakers, and they change all the time. Now they have lounge suites at the cemetery, covered by tents, for members of the family to sit on at the graveside. There is competition among the undertakers to see who can provide the best furniture — all paid for by the bereaved family, of course. When a priest died, we had to borrow a Methodist church for the funeral, and the undertakers kept urging us to hurry, because it was taking too long (priests’ funerals are a long affair, and we had warned them about that).

I really think we need Christian cooperative burial societies, which will do away with all the kitsch sepulchral haberdashery — artificial grass, fancy coffin-lowering apparatus and all the rest. Worst of all is the funeral parlour chapel where the minister presses a button and the coffin mysteriously disappears through a curtain. If you go behind the scenes, it is like a disorganised car workshop, with coffins lying around waiting to be loaded into a hearse to be taken to crematorium or cemetery, or waiting to be wheeled in to the chapel for the next sitting, while the mourners are ushered out so that the next lot can replace them, and the rest of the blacksuited staff sitting around or leaning against the coffins having a smoke break. The contrast between death and the stage props used to disguise it is huge.

Far better, I think, to restore community to funerals — and to gated “communities”.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 May 2009 11:30 pm

    Dear Blogger,
    Some clarification is needed here regarding Funeral Homes as mission places. This use is minimal in North America. Funeral Homes however, are used by many nominal Christians, and non-believers as places of burial. They are brightly lit so the image of death is hidden from the public as much as possible. Gentle, calm music is played to sooth the hearts of those facing the impending pain of the prayers for and burial of their beloved friend or family member. Plastic smiles coat the faces of the funeral home’s assistants, while they attend to mourners. When Orthodox clergy are called to serve the Memorial Service, most often an evening Panachyda is held, followed by the Funeral Service and burial the next day. In other confessions, in some cases only the funeral service takes place with burial.
    In three smaller Alberta cities funeral homes are used for English language Canadian missions. The expense of renting rooms, borrowing spaces or funding a building while a Mission Station is being formed makes having a building impossible. In each case the funeral home was approached for permission to hold worship services. Two of three funeral homes allow Vespers and Divine Liturgy on the same weekend. Rarely are funerals held on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. In many cases the funeral home is available for services for the major Feasts of our Lord.
    The funeral home manager gets positive community exposure for offering the facility for free for new mission services. The Mission Station gratefully uses the facility of the funeral home. Many have a large meeting room, kitchen facilities, small storage for altar items and a large foyer for chatting before and after services. All in all it works.
    Indeed, newcomers have not all overcome their fear of death, but after a few experiences of the loving Lord at worship, the funeral home “ickiness” dissipates. The gregarious, loving nature of Orthodox faithful helps overcome the funeral home stigma. Committed members of the mission really see this as a blessing. The funeral home becomes their place of worship, ministry, spiritual growth, and fellowship. Bible studies and Parish Council meetings often take place at a home, restaurant, community hall, or office which have better rooms for such gatherings.
    The first Mission Station has stalled it’s growth. A lack of ongoing commitment, converts who moved away and lack of clergy has lessened the services from twice a month, later once a month to just a few a year. When the focus is regained the effort will create new mission efforts again.
    The second Mission Station at Red Deer began services (fifth attempt) in 2004. Liturgy was held twice a month for most of three years. During summer holidays, the services lessened, but renewed to twice a month in the fall. In 2008, the Mission Station formed into a Mission Parish when the OCA shared its faithful with the Ukrainian Orthodox Mission Station. Now they are raising funds to build a church building of their own.
    The third Mission station started in 2003, and uses the same Funeral Home continuously to this date. Three years ago it became a Mission Parish since they support their priest at nearly a full time salary. Converts have joined the parish through personal, radio and internet outreach. That facility has the most beautiful cemetery grounds with a fountain, grassy knolls and meandering roads leading to the burial areas. Inside, the classy finish of the entry, hallways and large dining room brighten one’s heart, and override any consciousness of death, because when I’ve visited there the Lord always gave me life – Himself.
    So the macabre is over overcome by the mystery and the majestic movement of the Holy Spirit Who brings new life to the worshipers.

  2. 26 May 2009 4:28 pm

    Ha! If we started doing Pagan rituals in graveyards (as an overseas friend suggested we should on Samhain, because it’s about connecting with ancestors, and they do it in China and Mexico) there would be an otucry, and we’d get accused of necromancy and all sorts.

  3. 27 May 2009 6:37 am

    I once went to a largely Chinese church in Singapore, and joined in the youth group discussion on ancestor veneration with another South African, Lucas Falteni, whose cultural background was Xhosa, where ancestor veneration is traditionally practised. We found it very interesting.

    Most of the locals were from pagan families, and they were discussing how far, as Christians, they could go in participating in ancestral veneration. Most said they would not have ancestral tablets, but all agreed that they woould participate in cemetery visits, and help to clean the graves.

    Orthodox Christians traditionally do that on Good Friday, too.


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