Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Funeral

I walked into a swaying throng of singing people – mostly dressed in the red and black uniform of the Methodist Church of SA.

On Friday morning I attended the funeral of Nonkosi Makananda, the wife of my friend and colleague Fikile. The venue was the Langa community hall, which was really too small for the occasion, but was the largest building available. I am not really good at estimating numbers, but at a guess I would say that there were 1500 people present. … five of us were white surrounded by a grieving black community.

I had nothing to say, and had no official part to play in the proceedings, but just being there was enough for me. This is consistent with the African urge towards ubuntu – a concept of human solidarity encapsulated in the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. I believe that my humanity only becomes real when it connects with others, and in attending this funeral I became part of the human community. And it is here that I recognized the sharp division between the white and black members of my denomination: black Methodist people came to this funeral from all over the country, while white Methodists were conspicuous by their absence. For black Methodist this was about standing alongside a family in their grief, something white Methodists simply do not understand.

White South Africans are generally very bad at dealing with death. We want our funerals to be swift and painless; we want our grieving to be private and invisible; and we do our best to “put it behind us” and to “move on with our lives.” In the process we do not grieve well, and have very little space to find real spiritual healing from the trauma of death – witness the thriving trade of psychologists, spiritualist mediums, and anti-depressant medication. And for this reason we avoid funerals.

I stood alongside my friend Fikile – because I am a human being who recognized his humanity.

And I was in uniform.


Wessel Bentley said...


How many times have you heard people say "I'm not going to say anything at the service, because I'm going to become emotional"?

I think you hit the nail on the head. Being emotional is perceived to being weak. It opens the window to our true humanity. Maybe it is because we are so suspicious of one another and perhaps paranoid about our vulnerability, that we do not allow others to see the places where we crack, giving opportunity for the dammed-up water to seep through.

Barbara said...

Beautiful, again, Pete. I believe you'll be able to change the attitude of these others you speak about - and perhaps they'll become part of the human community as well.

Steve Hayes said...

We have the same problem in the Orthodox Church. When a Greek priest or a member of his family dies all the clergy are expected to be at the funeral, Greek or non-Greek. When Rosina Thamaga, the widow of a South African priest, died last month, not one Greek priest was at the funeral. And not one Greek priest was at the funeral when her husband died five years ago either.

Of course we are not racist, you understand.

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