Funerals are common in Africa with an average life expectancy under 50 in most countries. In South Africa, funerals are often held on Saturday or Sunday, and rarely in the middle of the week. Furthermore, it is culturally expected for funerals to have a large attendance. (Somewhere around 300-500) The service and burial are held in the mornings around 7-10 am.
If the service is on Sunday, should a pastor go? Should he go if it means he has to cancel church? Should he encourage the church service to be canceled so that all the members can support the bereaved? In Luke 9:60 when Jesus said, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the Kingdom of God.” is this the kind of thing He was talking about?
Experience in a village setting, a few years of pastoral care, and reflection on the nature of man suggest these observations and conclusion.
- Families can choose what day they want to bury the deceased. There is no cultural requirement to do it on the Lord’s Day morning. And this seems to fit other patterns I’ve noticed. Children are often scheduled to pick up their grade reports on Sunday morning from the schools (why not any other day of the week?). Civic meetings are often held on Sunday mornings. Sunday burials seem to be—for the most part—an expression of a cultural ambivalence toward a consistent prioritization of the Lord’s Day.
- Funerals are common. First, the services may be canceled several times a year or more. Secondly, because they are a sadly normal way of life, you will have the chance to support the community at other times. And since so many people attend each one, it is not as if the pastor will be shockingly conspicuous by his absence (unless the pastor is the only drop of milk in a bowl of chocolate).
- African funerals are multi-day events. Often the funeral will begin a week in advance with nightly meetings at the house. The attendance grows throughout the week culminating in the morning burial service. The weeknight meetings begin throughout the afternoon as people drop in to visit and talk. Some stay for hours, some for less time. On Wednesday-Friday, the grave is dug as well as cleaning and preparations at the house. After the service, those closest to the family have to break down the tent and clean up. If a pastor wants to communicate love and support, these times are more opportune than the burial service to be involved.
- Burial services come in stages. The first service is at the home for an hour or so. Then everyone shifts to the grave for another hour while the men shovel the dirt and place the bricks on top. Then everyone regathers at the house for a full meal. It is possible, though not common, to leave before the meal if the attendee is willing to forego a well-cooked, free meal and conversation.
- Our commitment to Jesus Christ should be of such intensity that others could mistake our natural affections as being a kind of hatred. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
From these observations, I’ve reached the conclusion that services should not be canceled.