God's Word for today

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Celebrating our differences - even in death

Yesterday I was invited by Neville to accompany him and a couple of friends to the beach. Unfortunately I had to decline the invitation, since I was due to conduct a funeral starting at 2 pm.

But I had to laugh at Neville's suggestion that I catch up with them later - after all, in a typical white context a funeral normally takes about 20-30 minutes, and if you do absolutely everything from opening the church, to conducting the service, to tea afterwards, helping with cleaning up, and locking the church afterwards, you can still be done within about an hour. In a coloured context, on the other hand, things are done a little differently, and if I managed to return home from a 2 pm funeral before the sun went down, I would have been doing really well!

And so it turned out - by the time I completed the service in the church, gone through to the cemetery, completed the graveside prayers and formalities, and then returned to the church for a "little something" to eat (HUGE insult if one declines, unless one genuinely has another appointment), it was getting on for 5 pm by the time I left the church, with the meal still in full swing.

But having now been involved in ten coloured funerals and three white ones, I got to thinking about the differences between the two contexts. Here are some of my observations:

Firstly, us "whiteys" are scared of the whole concept of death. We don't want to even talk about it. The very word sends tremors through our bodies - so much so that we don't "die", we "pass on", or "go home to be with Jesus". The service reflects this, with a concerted effort to get the entire proceedings over and done with in the shortest possible amount of time (see above).

In the coloured context, they are much more honest about death. Sure, the same sense of loss is felt - indeed, I have conducted many a funeral where the family and loved ones have openly sobbed during the service. Yet there is a frank honesty about what has happened - the person died.

The way in which coloured folks say goodbye to their loved ones is also quite enlightening. Firstly, the funeral service is not the be-all-and-end-all - in fact, services start on the Monday evening preceding the funeral. Each night from Monday to Thursday, there is a house service, with representatives of the different organisations each taking their turn to participate. When every group and organisation stands up in a Circuit Quarterly Meeting and reports that a major part of their activity involves visiting the bereaved, they are not kidding.

Then on the day of the funeral itself (always a Saturday, with few exceptions), proceedings commence with a service in the house, followed by the procession to the church. There the funeral service is conducted (usually about an hour, so as to keep to the undertaker's timetable). Following the service, the procession moves to the gravesite, where a short service is conducted as the deceased's remains are lowered into the ground.

Thereafter, it's usually back to either someone's house or the church for a meal - such meals being a celebration of the person's life, especially if they were a Christian and active in the local Church. While such events aren't exactly dance parties, the atmosphere is none the less quite jovial.

So which approach is better? Personally, I would rather die myself than have hordes of people around me when I have just lost a loved one. Having said that, I have seen how bereaved families experience healing through all the services and related activities. The typical whitey approach involves relative isolation before the funeral, an intense desire to get the funeral over and done with ASAP, and (often) complete isolation thereafter. I'm not convinced that this is healthy.

On the other hand, the pressure on bereaved families to cater for upwards of 150 people (and we're talking a cooked meal - no soggy sandwiches and a cup of tea, here) can place families under inordinate financial strain. An offering of sorts is received (informally), but that doesn't even scratch the surface. In an area where many people are living at close to poverty levels, this is a practice that the Church needs to start addressing.

I'm also not convinced that those fancy coffins are the way to go, either. However, that's a difficult one since the prevailing cultural practice is strongly in favour of burial. My feeling is that the sense of remembrance has much to do with this - certainly, when one enters the main cemetery in Rosedale, the names on the gravestones read like a veritable "Who's Who" of our congregation. There's a deep sense of history, here. How one achieves the same sense of remembrance with a cremation, I still need to get my mind around.

And as for broaching the subject of becoming an organ donor (I am registered as one with the South African Organ Donor Foundation), I'm still trying to figure out how to approach this one from a theological perspective that is at the same time sensitive to cultural practices that go back many, many years.

Certainly I have no grounds for stating that burial is wrong, because it actually isn't. The whole "from dust you came, to dust you will return" bit in Genesis finds particular significance in a burial service. So the challenge for me as a minister is to find ways to bring similar meaning to services in which the deceased's remains are cremated, or where organs, tissue, and indeed entire bodies are donated for organ transplant and/or medical research.

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