Share   Print
Related Content

Reflections on the Funeral

By Panagiotes Somalis

From the Orthodox Church in Kenya

"Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's" (Rom. 14:8)

WE HAVE HEARD, only too often, that Christianity has set us free from the darkness of idolatry and its barbarous customs. Living, however, in a country "Christianized" (even if for generations this has been only superficially) long ago, we cannot realize what this means in everyday life. In that case our African brethren have an advantage: for them the years of ignorance are more recent and, especially for the older generation, they have a lot to remember. And as they compare the past with the present, the slavery of fear with the glorious liberty of the children of God, they feel more deeply than many of us the benefactions of the Gospel.

Let us consider, for example, the customs of the funeral. For the Kikuyu tribe, the first in population, but also first in bravery and wisdom among the tribes of Kenya, funeral customs were utterly hideous. For a start, they were terribly afraid of dead people. Renowned young warriors, whom neither the gloom of the jungle nor the howlings of its beasts could frighten at all, used to be scared to death of the ngoma (spirits of dead people). Even harmless babies, following their death, were believed to be transformed into frightful spirits which had to be continually appeased with sacrifices.

We should also note that any contact with a corpse resulted in ceremonial uncleanness (cf Num. 11:11-22). To get rid of this uncleanness, one had to sacrifice a sufficient number of animals, mainly rams, and also to pay generously the mugo (medicine man). Accordingly, extremely few had the special privilege of being buried, mainly tribal chiefs. For the other "common mortals," the procedure was as follows: When the sick person was in his last agony, but before he had expired, his relatives were to carry him out into the bush and abandon him there, a prey to hyenas and leopards! The American doctor H. Virginia Blackslee (she worked as a missionary in Kenya with the African Inland Mission, a Protestant group, between 1912 and 1953) describes very vividly in her book, "Behind the Kikuyu Curtain," the horror which the screams of these defenceless victims used to cause her. Naturally, all missionaries from the very beginning condemned this inhuman custom. For Christians, their body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (cf 1 Cor. 6:19). Even more for Orthodox Christians our bodies are sanctified through the sacraments we have received. Consequently too, we must not consider cremation as an apparently modern and "easy-to-use" solution.

Today in Kenya this horrid custom is but a recollection of the aged. All the dead are buried and, in most occasions, in the gardens of their houses. The burial might be delayed for many days, until the arrival of as many relatives as possible. Almost all neighbours attend.

As His Grace Bishop Makarios of Riruta (who, by the way, officiates at a few funerals every week) was mentioning, Orthodox funerals are a great opportunity for missionary activity, since many heterodox attend them. They find our ceremonies very impressive. Once the service is over, they express their admiration of the liturgical wealth of our Church and their perplexity about their own liturgical poverty. [We have noticed a similar phenomenon here at Brookwood, especially as now more and more the "Western Churches" are abandoning their liturgical heritage and replacing their old forms with "state-of-the-decay" productions—ed].

I was deeply touched at the end of a funeral, when the whole congregation, "with one mouth and one heart, " were singing in a somehow peculiar melody, Kiririkano gia tene na tene (Memory Eternal). Although I had heard many hymns in most of the Kenyan dialects, that "Memory Eternal" was deeply engraved in my memory and my heart.

Finally, I would like to stress that our Kenyan brethren face death with dignity and prudence "as becometh saints" (Eph. 5:3). Of course they grieve. Let us not forget that even our Lord wept for His friend Lazarus (Jn 11:35). But they do not grieve "even as others which have no hope" (I Thess. 4:13). I have not met anyone with the usual hysteria which characterizes funerals in many of the traditionally Orthodox countries (e.g. Greece) [N.B. our writer is a native of Greece]. The believers are consoled by their faith in the resurrection and the eternal life of those who have fallen asleep in Christ. As a mother told me at the funeral of her nine year old daughter: "Esther left our dirty slum and went to dwell in God's golden city" (cf Rev. 21:18). May we also be vouchsafed to dwell therein, through the mercy of our Risen Saviour. Amen.

Editor's Note. See also this month's "Points From Correspondence" section. It seems that in many ways as the Kenyans are Christianizing, the people in this country are reverting to Pre-Christian phobias and attitudes.

From The Shepherd, Vol. XVI, No. 9 (June, 1996), pp. 6-7, 13-16.