'It feels like a drive-through service': Cold comfort at funerals under lockdown

17 May 2020 - 00:00 By LEONIE WAGNER
Friends and family attend the funeral of Solani Promise Ntekele at Dan Village, Tzaneen, on April 25. Under lockdown regulations a maximum of 50 people can attend a funeral and they must wear masks and avoid hugging each other, leaving many feeling they have been unable to pay their respects as custom demands.
Friends and family attend the funeral of Solani Promise Ntekele at Dan Village, Tzaneen, on April 25. Under lockdown regulations a maximum of 50 people can attend a funeral and they must wear masks and avoid hugging each other, leaving many feeling they have been unable to pay their respects as custom demands.
Image: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images

Masked faces looked back at Susan Jansen van Rensburg as she buried her husband of 35 years.Sakkie, as he was affectionately known, died of a heart attack on April 13, aged 60.

It was a tough call to decide who of the couple’s almost 200 family members could attend, as only 50 are permitted under lockdown regulations. In the end it was 45 people, three people from the funeral parlour, the minister and a pianist.

“The funeral was very impersonal, we all stood around the gravesite wearing face masks, no one could hug or hold each other or comfort one another the way we usually would.

My husband was a very affectionate person, he was one who liked physical contact and so does his entire family, and we couldn’t even do that at his funeral. It felt like I couldn’t give him the send-off I wanted to or the funeral he deserved,” Jansen van Rensburg said.

Also feeling robbed of paying due respect is Free State cleric Apostle Mohau Rammile, who has officiated at the funerals of two pastors under the lockdown regulations.

Longtime neighbours who couldn’t attend had to content themselves with standing at their gates as the small funeral processions went past, waving to the bereaved family from afar.It is in how we mourn the deceased that the comfort and closure lie, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions it has brought have upset that, clinical psychologist Zamo Mbele said.

“Mourning is a process. Most customs allow that process to unfold in a way that brings closure. The thing with death is not always what it takes away but also what it leaves behind. When we experience loss … it seems to shatter something inside ourselves, and in a way the antidote to that is coming together,” Mbele said.

“Some of these customs have been around for centuries and they’re not only inherent across cultures but important for the grieving process.”

Rammile said music played a big part in funerals and it was customary for the men in the family to close the grave once the coffin had been lowered.

“These days our funerals are very cold; it feels like a drive-through service. In our African culture we take our time, but we had to do everything in one hour. You don’t have time to say goodbye to your loved one. There was no comfort service during the week. The family couldn’t even close the grave,” Rammile said.

Gauteng funeral director Sonja Smith has arranged 90 funerals during this time and said her clients have felt cheated and deprived of a farewell.Smith has been able to stream funerals for those who couldn’t attend, but she said online funerals were not the same.

“Hugs, night vigils and comforting hands are now replaced with Zoom funerals, deferred funerals and a virtual goodbye.

The only option is to mourn online. It feels weird and disrespectful, and can even provoke anger to attend your loved one’s funeral on the same screen you watch your favourite movie,” Smith said.

Another sad sight, said Smith, was looking at masked faces sitting a metre apart in church at a memorial service.


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