Last weekend the Orthodox Archioceses of Johannesburg and Pretoria said goodbye to Father Ioann Lapidus, of the parish of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand, who is to return to Russia. He will be replaced by Father Daniel.
Also, Theodora (Rosina) Thamaga, the widow of the late Father Simon Thamaga, was buried.
His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, exchanged gifts with Father Ioann, and thanked Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia for sending priests to care for the Russian-speaking members of the Archdiocese.
On Saturday 23 January we had the funeral of Theodora (Rosina) Thamaga, the widow of Father Simon, who died in 2004. Father Simon was Archbishop of the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, an African independent church which asked to join the Orthodox Church in 1997.
After his funeral in 2004, several neighbours who attended his funeral wanted to know more about the Orthodox Church, and so a new mission congregation was started in Tembisa, where Mrs Thamaga lived, and she together with a local school teacher, became leaders of the new congregation. We visited them to help with services every second week from 2005 to 2008, when Father Johannes Rakumako was asked to take charge of the congregation.
For me, the funeral began at 5:00 am, when I left home to drive 20 kilometres to Mamelodi to fetch four of our church members there to take them to Tembisa. We arrived at Tembisa just before 7:00 am, and Father Johannes Rakumako was already there. A tent had been erected in the yard outside the house, and there were about 50 people who had been there for the all night vigil, when the body was received from the undertakers the evening before.
We began the service, bringing the body out from the house into the tent, the equivalent of taking it from the house to the church. We were joined by other clergy — Father Athanasius, Father Frumentius and Father Markos.
One thing that interested me was the differences in funeral customs. When we buried Nicholas Sibiya last year in Mamelodi, people were reluctant to come forward for the last kiss, and Father Frumentius told me that people were afraid of dead bodies. But on this occasion people had come from a distance, and wanted to give the last kiss, and we had to ask them to wait until we reached that point in the service. We explained that this was an Orthodox custom, and everyone came forward.
The procession to the cemetery, however, was rather chaotic. Just about all funerals are held on Saturday mornings, and there was a traffic jam at the entrance to the cemetery. At first it looked as though some people had gone up the wrong side of the road, intending to get ahead of the others, and so blocked the traffic trying to leave the cemetery after earlier funerals. The result was a gridlock, which also blocked traffic on the main road. We tried to hold back, to let the main road traffic through, and when we discovered the casue of the jam — a battered Venture taxi came up on our left as we tried to turn right into the cemetery, and forced us onto the wrong side of the road, threatening to start the traffic jam all over again.
By the time we got in, we could not find our funeral. There were about 10-15 funerals going on at the same time, many of them at adjacent graves, so it was chaotic. Father Athanasius and I arrived when they were just filling up the grave. Fortunately Father Frumentius and Father Johannes were there to lead the graveside service.
The women in yellow and purple uniforms are members of the St Monica’s Guild, and are from a branch of the African Orthodox Church that joined the Coptic Church in the 1990s. Those in the blue and white uniforms are members of the group that joined the Greek Orthodox Church.
Normally the ash from the censer and oil from the shrine lamp are emptied into the grave after the coffin has been lowered into it, but as Fr Athanasius only arrived with the censer when the grave was nearly filled, this could only be done afterwards.
The final act before leaving is to put broken crockery on the grave. Ofthen this takes the form of western-style plates, but in this case an African-style pot was used.
We returned to the house, where about 200 people were queuing up to be fed, and that is where friends and family meet and greet each other. We learned that Fr Markos had had an accident on the way to the cemetery, and the point where the traffic jam had occurred. The owner of the bakkie he had hit was there, demanding R2000 immediately, because he said he needed to get it fixed before he went to work on Monday.
One of the people there was the widow of Philip Mabunda, a former bishop of the branch of the African Orthodox Church that had joined the Coptic Church. She reconised me from the tie I had gone to meet their bishops in Parys 21 years ago, thus beginning the process by which they sounght to unite with the Orthodox Church.
I took the Mamelodi members home, and arrived home myself at about 2:00 pm, nine hours after leaving.