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The funeral of Philip Mabena

7 August 2016

Philip Mabena died on 26 July 2016. He was a member of the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in Atteridgeville, whose church building we have been renting for our services since the beginning of this year. We have had a long association with the African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville, as we first visited them in 1989, and their priest at that time, Johannes Motau, sometimes attended Orthodox study groups, and also some services at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan, then meeting in borrowed premises in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Philip Mabena was one of the leading members of the AOC in Atteridgeville, and was, in a way, the glue that held it together, so though we did not know him well, we have known him for a long time, and so we all went to his funeral. He was a retired policeman, and had been born on 1 July 1932, which surprised me, as I thought he was much younger than that.

I write about his funeral not merely because of who he was, but because, as far as I can determine, the Orthodox Church in South Africa has given very little thought to death and its rituals in southern Africa. Of course the Church has its service books and their rubrics, but many of these are impractical in the circumstances in which Orthodox Christians find themselves here. I have attended many funerals, and served at some, and my observation is that funeral customs vary from place to place and from time to time, and are largely determined by burial societies and funeral directors.

I have sometimes asked about customs that were new to me, and the usual response has been that it is “our culture”, but “our culture” seems to change from funeral to funeral, depending on who the undertakers and burial society are. One constant factor, however, seems to be a printed programme provided by the undertakers, and controlled by a master of ceremonies. The actual church service is fitted into the programme between the speeches. There will be a hymn, and then a slot for Revd X to do the funeral service. What is expected is a short exhortation, to be fitted in to a lot of other items, including clergy of several denominations, regardless of which church the deceased belonged to.

Philip Mabena’s funeral was different, and in its broad outline fitted the rubrics of the Orthodox burial service — it started with a vigil at the house, proceeded to the church for the service, and then to the cemetery for the burial.

This was only possible because Philip Mabena lived within walking distance of the church. Most Orthodox Christians in southern Africa live a long way from the church, and so the service usually satarts in the church, ot in other cases is held at the house, going from there to the cemetery.

At 7:00 am the body was brought out of the house after the vigil, and Deacon Enock Thobela, who is in charge of the Atteridgeville AOC parish, preceded it reading the sentences from the South Sotho Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The coffin was laid down near the gate, and a member of the family said a last farewell, as Philip Mabena’s body left home for the last time. An earthenware pot was thrown on the ground and smashed. The coffin was then put in the hearse abnd taken to the church, with clergy walking in front or alongside. The procession to the church was led by a brass band.

Funeral procession to African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville.

Funeral procession to African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville.

At the church the service was led by Bishop Mogano from Krugersdorp, and there were a couple of other priests as well. I was interested to see that
they did the funeral the way we have done it, with the speeches and eulogies built into the service, instead of the other way round, as is often done in other services, where the burial societies and undertakers try to make the service a small part of a larger programme. Also I was the only non-AOC among the clergy — in other cases there are clergy representing the denominations that various members of the family belong to. This was very much an all AOC affair.

The brass band in the church

The brass band in the church

One of the speakers was Sejamotopo Charles Motau, the eldest son of Johannes Motau, a former priest of the church, who was a Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance, so his speech took on a political tinge, and politics was in the air, with the results of municipal elections still coming in.

Funeral of Philip Mabena

Funeral of Philip Mabena

When we went to the cemetery, we gave a lift to one of the AOC priests, Don Dlwati from Tembisa, who was a son of the former archbishop of that branch of the AOC, Adonijah Dlwati. There was a huge traffic jam at the gates of the cemetery, which was in Lotus Gardens, over the railway line and the toll road.

Funeral of Philip Mabena, leaving the church after the service.

Funeral of Philip Mabena, leaving the church after the service.

At the graveside, Bishop Mogano was very much in charge of the proceedings, telling which of the priests to say which prayers. As soon as they had filled in the grave, they laid the tombstone, and Bishop Mogano asked me to say a prayer at that point, so I sang “Memory Eternal” in North Sotho.

It was interesting also to see the gravestone laid and unveiled right after the burial. In many cases that takes place about a year after the burial, which means that the family has to go through the whole business of catering for visitors all over again.

As we walked back to the car I talked to the Programme Director, Mr P. Mahlangu, who was asking about the Orthodox Church and was puzzled by the epithets “Greek”, “Russian” and the like, and I explainede to him that we had Greek, Russian, Serbian and Romanian parishes, but it was one Orthodox Church. We returned to the house where there was food, and the brass band played some more.


Over brunch we chatted to Don Dlwati, who had travelled back with us too. I noticed that he was using Baptist and Methodist service books, presumably because the Anglican ones they prefer to use are no longer available. So once again I appeal to any Anglicans reading this, who have any copies of Southern Sotho Prayer Books that they would be willing to donate, to please get in touch with me.

For more information about the African Orthodox Church and its relation to canonical Orthodoxy, see here.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon permalink
    7 August 2016 10:18 pm

    There is no reason not to respect the funeral formularies of the Baptists or the Methodists. The use of their liturgical aids could only add to the sanctification of the solemn community occasion.

    • 8 August 2016 4:47 am

      It’s not a matter of not respecting the Methodist and Baptist formularies, but the tradition of the African Orthodox Church in these parts is to use the Anglican service in South Sotho, but since the Anglicans have changed their prayer book those are hard to get, which is why I’m appealing to Anglicans who have old copies they don’t need to donate them to the AOC.

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