Pastors in South Africa Risk Prosecution for COVID-19 Non-Compliant Funerals

Guidelines for Funerals in South Africa.
Credit: Public Domain

Gatherings for the last rites in South Africa have been identified as “a major source of mass infection” of the coronavirus with the leadership of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) cautioning that leaders of various Christian denominations who flout COVID-19 measures risk facing prosecution.

In a letter based on feedback across the South African country showing “that funerals continue to be a major source of mass infection, accelerating the numbers and leading to death and then more infectious funerals,” SACC officials remind church leaders of their responsibility to alert bereaved families about government guidelines put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“Our concern is that the finger is pointing to the inability or unwillingness of church pastors to manage funerals in accordance with the regulations, opening them to prosecution,” SACC General Secretary, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana says in the July 24 letter to leaders of member churches, which was circulated Monday, July 27.

SACC leadership notes that oftentimes church ministers “do not at all” exercise their responsibility to ensure COVID-19 compliant funerals.

Church leaders become “rightly responsible for the death of people who die after an infection from a funeral they were conducting,” SACC leadership says and adds, “This means that if anyone should be charged for a non-compliant funeral, it should be the minister in charge of the funeral, not the naughty crowd at Soshanguve, for example.”

A conviction for a COVID-19 non-compliance funeral, Bishop Mpumlwana says, is “not a happy charge to have on the conscience of a pastoral person!”

In the three-page letter shared with ACI Africa, the SACC official further notes that “a lot of singing led or permitted by church ministers at funerals” contravenes the provisions issued on May 28 prohibiting singing during worship, “which a funeral also is.”

Acknowledging that most church leaders “genuinely do not know” about the guidelines, the officials of the interdenominational forum encourage the leadership of the 36-member churches and organizations to visit its website dedicated to creating COVID-19 awareness, churchinaction.org.za, for funeral-related information.

The forum, which has the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) among its members, is also considering offering COVID funeral management training sessions for ministers to ensure that “no local minister has to face the prospect of a COVID funeral without knowledge and preparation.”

“I wish to advise church leaders that funerals are considered one of the foremost mass infection vehicles for the Coronavirus. There are a number of joy points for the virus in the context of death,” Bishop Mpumlwana says in the July 24 letter.

He adds, “We have considered all of these, and believe it is necessary for the pastor to fully appreciate the chain and pastoral ways of ministering to them.”

South Africa has reported at least 445,000 COVID-19 cases, 6,769 related deaths; 265,000 patients have recovered.

The country, which initially recorded success in controlling the spread of the pandemic now ranks as the fifth most affected country globally in terms of COVID-19 infections after the US, Brazil, India and Russia.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]