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Funerals and inculturation

25 July 2009

Today we had Nicholas Sibiya’s funeral at Mamelodi and as it was the first funeral of a baptised Orthodox Christian to be held there, it was probably unique for that place, and one of the challenges was the contrasting assumptions of the Orthodox service books and the cultural practices of Gauteng township funerals.

South Africa has been truly described as “many cultures, one nation”. Funeral customs differ from place to place. Gauteng towship funerals are different from rural Zululand funerals, and from white middle-class suburban funerals. And Gauteng township funerals show quite a bit of variation, though there is a fairly consistent pattern.

Up till now most of the funerals I have been involved in in Mamelodi have been those of members of the African Orthodox Church, most of whose relatives belonged to other denominations. I had scoured service books for a service for non-Orthodox people, and used those. But this time we had to have the full Orthodox funeral, and I was grateful to Father Frumentius and Matushka Evgenia for coming so that we could have a priest, and also so that he could guide me though the local customs.

Many of the assumptions of the service books simply don’t apply. They might fit Russian and Greek rural villages, but they don’t apply to Gauteng townships.

Among these assumptions are that the person dies at home, that the priest is present as the person dies to say prayers for the dying person, and that the family will wash and prepare the body for burial. The body is then borne to the church, led by clergy, with all singing “Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. At the church there is an all-night vigil service, and then the burial service, after which the body is taken to the grave, again accompanied by the singing of the Triagion (Holy God). The body is laid in the grave,  the priest pours a shovelful of earth on it in the form of a cross, followed by oil from the shrine lamp and ash from the censer, the priest gives a blessing, and everyone leaves.

In Mamelodi we don’t have a church. On Sundays we use a school classroom. The usual pattern is that undertakers remove the body from the home on the day of the death. The furniture is removed from the room where the person died, and a matress is put on the floor. Close women relatives of the deceased sit there, with a lighted candle, until the funeral. It was in that room that we held the three-day Requiem service last Sunday. The day before the funeral the undertakers bring the body to the home in a coffin. A tent is put up in the yard, and if the yard is small it sometimes extends to the street outside. The coffin is taken to another room in the house, and the undertakers supply curtains, and the women sit on the floor in that room. Clergy are expected to say prayers when the body is brought home, and the funeral vigil is held at home, with friends and relatives arriving from various places. In the morning the funeral service is held in the tent, and at some point the body is brought out from the inner room to the tent. People make speeches, and then punctually at the hour decreed by the undertakers the body is taken to the hearse, and taken to the cemetery and it is then laid in the grave. The close family of the deceased sit in chairs under an awning, others stand around. The grave is filled in, speeches are made, and people return to the home for lunch in the tent (clergy and close family), or outside in the street (the hoi polloi).

In the generic Protestantism that prevaails in the townships, the funeral service is like a committee meeting. There is a Master of Ceremonies who controls things, and various people make speeches, interspersed with hymns.

The first funeral I went to in Mamelodi was a bit like that. Father Athanasius and I were there, but so were clergy of various other denominations that various members of the family belonged to. Each one was given a turn in the programme, followed by the singing of a chorus. So when Father Athanasius had his turn, he censed the body, and the MC judged that that was enough, started a chorus, and then a Protestant minister spoke. The clergy were expected to speak, not do stuff like censing the body.

But Nicholas Sibiya was Orthodox, and the situation was not complicated by the presence of clergy of other denominations. On Friday afternoon the undertakers brought the body and the curtains, to be taken to a room inside the house. They were somewhat late. So we used the service for taking the body from the home to the church for the part when it is taken from the hearse to the house. First it was laid on the ground, and one of the relatives addressed it, asking it not to cause any trouble, in accordance with Ndebele custom. Then we led it into the inner room, with much censing. The Ndebele people regard the body as dirty, and people are contaminated by death, and they burn things, imphephu, to cleanse the house and the family. So censing was the Orthodox imphephu.

Then we left, and returned later in the evening for the Requiem service (Panikhida), which started off the vigil. In the morning we had the burial service in the tent, and one of the service books indicated a point for the Eulogy, and so we asked the MC to fit the speeches in there. But this got a bit rushed, and people were anxious about the time — the undertakers were to fetch the body at 10:00 am, and while the undertakers can be late for the people, the people must never be late for the undertakers. This is one area in which African time (or Greek time) does not apply, it seems. Father Frumentius was getting a bit edgy about this when people were pointing it out, and Val said to him that it was for Nicholas Sibiya’s soul, and not for the convenience of the undertakers that we were doing this.

We went to the cemetery, and there it was easy to follow the service books. The only problem was that in Ndebele custom two people stand in the grave when the coffin is lowered into it, and Father Frumentius pointed out to them that in city cemeteries the hole is dug with only enough space for the coffin, so they would have to get out while it was being lowered. As there was no church, there was no shrine lamp, and so Father Frumentius threw the shovelful of earth on the coffin in the form of a cross, and the ashes from the censer. The grave was filled in in double-quick time — I’ve never seen a grave filled so quickly before. There were a few more speeches, Father Frumentius gave the final dismissal, and we returned to the house for lunch.

Filling in the grave at the funeral of the newly-departed servant of God, Nicholas Sibiya.

Filling in the grave at the funeral of the newly-departed servant of God, Nicholas Sibiya.

There must have been a couple of hundred people there, and the family must have had to slaughter two beasts to feed them all. Funerals are expensive affairs. Fortunately there are burial societies to help with such things, but I think we need an Orthodox burial society.

But all in all, I think we gave Nicholas Sibiya a good send-off.


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