On 20 March Abba Seraphim, along with other members of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, representatives of Christian Churches, Islamic religious leaders, diplomats, high Egyptian state and military officials, politicians and thousands of ordinary people, attended the Funeral of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Abbeseya. An official day of mourning had been declared throughout Egypt. with flags flying at half-mast whilst the streets around the cathedral were lined with hundreds of soldiers. Loudspeakers broadcast the service into the surrounding streets. His Holiness’s body, which had been transferred the previous evening from the Throne of St. Mark to an impressive white casket, lay in front of the sanctuary in the midst of the khorus with the lid opened to reveal his face. This image of him, looking peaceful in death, had already become familiar as it had appeared on the front page of most national newspapers as well as having been widely viewed on television during his public lying-in-state, when thousands of mourners had passed through the cathedral to take their leave of a beloved father.
The funeral was preceded by another celebration of the Divine Liturgy, by members of the Holy Synod, presided over by His Eminence Metropolitan Bakhomious of Beheira. New carpets had been laid at the entrance to the khorus and the steps to the sanctuary were lined with an abundance of fragrant white flowers. Although the cathedral was packed, guests continued to arrive throughout the service. While the crowd waited a huge wave of clapping spontaneously burst out among the congregation as a bird, which had flown into the cathedral, soured above them. For many this symbolised the passing of the Pope’s spirit to the heavenly realm.
The funeral service commenced with prayers and a chant in Ge’ez by His Holiness Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia, who also spoke movingly of Pope Shenouda’s great legacy to the church. After this His Holiness Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch, frail and confined to a wheelchair, also spoke in a powerful voice about the Pope and led the chanting of funeral hymns by accompanying Syriac bishops. Many of the officiating clergy and those in the congregation were visibly moved. When the dignified figure of Metropolitan Bakhomious addressed the congregation in a hearfelt tribute to the Pope’s work and enduring legacy, the crowd heard him in rapt attention, but his spontaneous sentiments so eloquently expressed so perfectly captured the feelings of many and roused them to deafening applause. The service concluded as the casket was carried into the sanctuary by priests and then, assisted by soldiers down the north steps from the cathedral to a waiting white ambulance. This was conducted by outriders and police cars to a military airfield in the suburbs of Cairo. As it left the Patriarchate many of the awaiting crowd surged forward to be near it and the frenzied worshippers chased out of the precincts, beating following cars in an expression of their sadness and grief. It had been intended to fly members of the Holy Synod in an additional military plane accompanying the one used for taking His Holiness to an airfield in the Wadi Natrun, but at the last minute these plans were changed, so only about a third of the members attended the burial at St. Bishoy’s monastery.
Abba Seraphim accompanied His Grace Bishop Angaelos by car to the monastery, where they joined just over a hundred monks in the small building in the ancient precincts, which had been constructed in 2003 to serve as a monastic museum, but which had now been transformed into a tomb. Built in the shape of a cross, with four semi-domes in each apse containing traditional Coptic ikons, a white marble sarcophagus had been erected in the centre. The waiting monks had already dropped fragrant herbs and spices into the tomb and those crowded outside the tomb were passing small folded slips of papers containing prayer requests, which the monks also dropped into the sarcophagus. While everyone waited the monks lustily sang Coptic hymns, proud that their Pope, always first a simple monk, was finally coming back to be with them. Soon after dusk had fallen the casket, accompanied by Metropolitan Bakhomious and other bishops, who had travelled on the plane, was brought into the monastery. Overwhelmed by grief the crowd outside exploded into shouts and wailing and many others pushed forward behind the cortege so that the previously still tomb, where those inside had probably risen to two hundred, burst into frantic activity as the soldiers and monks attempted to lower the casket into the sarcophagus and place the great marble slab on the top. Flowers and fragrant oil was poured on the top and the sarcophagus received the first of many anointings, while mourners lovingly kissed the resting place of a most beloved Pope. This will surely be a foremost place of pilgrimage for Copts and all who respect the memory and legacy of Pope Shenouda and will also be a source of many blessings for generations to come.
Photograph Sources: Facebook and OCP