A Great Man Buried in Simplicity

Archbishop Desmond Tutu led by example in both his life and death. His central message upon death was twofold: live simply so others may simply live and embrace all religious faiths.

Lying peacefully in his coffin, he wore a plain white robe, black socks, perfectly polished black shoes, and an interfaith stole around his neck reaching down the length of his body. His hands were interlaced across his chest. He wore his Episcopal ring and around his neck hung a cross with the image of the body of Christ that came to rest just above his hands. He was not dressed in an ornate bishop’s cape and hat or his much-recognised purple garb. It was the beauty of his face that dominated his state of repose. At last at rest, it glowed with a bright light that often accompanies the release of the soul into the heavens.

The day before his funeral, I visited the Cathedral where his body lay in state.  I entered as the bells rung and his family arrived. Absentmindedly I trudged along with them not knowing what was about to unfold. Inadvertently my daughter and I were privileged to share this intimate moment when the Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba opened the coffin, said a prayer, then allowed the family to file passed and greet. Tears flowed abundantly but softly.

Tutu had chosen a simple pine coffin with rope handles to hold his body. His family had chosen the interfaith stole to affirm strongly his message of interfaith solidarity. The stole displayed symbols of the major world religions in a motley of bright colours – royal blue, green, orange, red, yellow, brown and white. In a sense, it added a joyful touch reminiscent of his ebullient personality that had so stolen hearts in his home country and across the world. Artistically, it appeared reflective of the use of vivid colours on the African, South American and Asian continents. The Very Reverend Michael Weeder, Dean of St. George’s Cathedral has confirmed that the stole was removed from the coffin before cremation and returned to the family.

Prior to his passing, he had requested to be interred in the Ossuary in The Crypt below the Cathedral. One Friday after the early morning mass, the Dean led him to the steps below the high alter in the sanctuary section of the cathedral and said in Afrikaans: “Laat ek vir Vader wys waar ‘n aartsbiskop van onse kerk moet begrawe word.” (Allow me to show Father where an archbishop of our church should be buried.)

There lay Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton who was elected to office in 1948, the year Apartheid became cemented in law. A year later he had stipulated in his will that he did not wish to be buried in a whites-only graveyard as demanded by apartheid law and chose to be cremated and interred in the cathedral.

In Alan Paton’s biography of Clayton entitled Apartheid and the Archbishop, The life and Times of Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of Cape Town, Paton explains that Clayton’s opposition to apartheid was given full expression on Ash Wednesday 6 March 1957, the day before he died. On that day, on behalf of the bishops of the Church of the Province of South Africa, Clayton signed a letter to the prime minister of South Africa, J.G. Strijdom refusing to obey and refusing to counsel the people of the Anglican Church in South Africa to obey, the provisions of section 29(c) of the Native Laws Amendment Act.

The act sought to force apartheid on all Christian congregations. 

“We should ourselves be unable to obey this Law or to counsel our clergy and people to do so. We therefore appeal to you, Sir, not to put us in a position in which we have to choose between obeying our conscience and obeying the law of the land,” said the letter.

Today South Africans continue to live with the consequences of the implementation of this law with many congregations and cemeteries still divided along racial lines.

Both the issue of simplicity of life and death and interfaith cooperation remain two crucial challenges across the world.

Interfaith solidarity was a hallmark of the struggle against apartheid and has continued to grow in post-apartheid South Africa. A lot still needs to be done but the commitment is firm. Not so with the matter of simple burials. Many South Africans who struggle to buy food do not neglect paying a fee to the burial society so that they and their loved ones can be buried with sufficient dignity as socially defined. Instead of using those same resources and investing it in an education fund for their children, burials top the agenda. For those of middle class backgrounds and the wealthy, the classiness of a funeral confirms the status of the family. The practice of burying almost immediately as was the case in earlier tribal societies has been replaced with the elaborate procedures that require funeral parlors. Only the Muslim community continues the practice of burying on the same day of death or the next and carrying the body in a bier used by all.

Upon his death, the Arch as he was fondly referred to has once again thrown a challenge that demands a response. An unusual one has come from Ghana.

 In a letter to the BBC online (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59981331), a leading Ghanaian journalist, Elizabeth Ohene has expressed surprise at the simplicity of the burial. She writes that Ghanians were dismayed and puzzled that such a famous person could die and be buried within a week and with such little fanfare.

“It would have taken at least that long for the family to agree on the composition of the delegation that would go to formally inform the president of the republic of the sad passing of the illustrious son of the land,” she said.

She suggests (tongue-in-cheek) that next time a famous person dies, Ghana should be consulted about what constituted a befitting funeral.

“Surely, everybody knows that what you put down as your wishes for your funeral do not count once you die.

“So, Tutu’s instructions for a modest funeral would have been ignored and we would give him what we call in these parts “a befitting funeral”. He would certainly not have been buried in that plain pine casket, she said.

The expensive frills would include billboards erected in every major city, numerous choirs brought in for the funeral and meals to feed thousands of mourners. Dancing pallbearers would also be considered. All this could take as long as three months to prepare.

The tone of her letter implies criticism of her own countries efforts to make funerals into shows. The question is whether a great man’s stance will start a movement in a different direction or whether his example will just be ignored.

2 February 2022 (2.2.22)

This article first appeared at www.zubeidajaffer.co.za

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A Great Man Buried in Simplicity

Archbishop Desmond Tutu led by example in both his life and death. His central message upon death was twofold: live simply so others may simply