Cremation: Fire frees the soul to be reborn, reincarnated

Practiced traditionally by Hindus, Buddhists and some people prefer it as a clean and dignified way to dispose of mortal remains.

In Summary

• Did you know when you shuffle off this mortal coil, your cremated body is reduced to ashes, the weight equal to your birth weight?

• The bones are placed in cold water, mixed with milk then crushed to ash in a grinder. It is handed to the family in an urn or other container.

A blazing open-air pyre of dry eucalyptus logs will consume the meaningless mortal flesh and free the soul for the next cycle of rebirth or reincarnation

That is what many Hindus and Buddhists believe.

Archaeologists say evidence of cremation dates as far back as 17,000 years and has been used by various peoples over the ages.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought cremation to the fore in Nairobi where the Kariokor Asian crematorium and Hindu community have issued an urgent appeal for dry eucalyptus. There are so many bodies and not enough wood.

And in India, ravaged by Covid-19, the bodies are also piling up and cremation sites lack enough wood for fuel. The world has been moved by the sorrow and many people want to know know about the ancient, dignified, sanitary practice.

At Kariokor Crematorium in Nairobi, the Star met veteran undertaker Harish Patel, who explained more about the Hindu way to dispose of mortal remains.

If the body is big or the person has been ailing, cremation often takes 24 hours, meaning the family receives the ashes the next day. If the body is fresh, average in size and not filled with medication, it can take as little as three hours to reduce to ash.

And, when  your body is finally reduced to ashes, it is said to weigh as much as you did when you entered this world.

Though cremation is generally not practised by many Christians, the practice is slowly, steadily gaining acceptance. There's not enough land for traditional burials and there are concerns about sanitation.

Patel said a ghee, or clarified butter, and sesame seeds (simsim) help. The ghee and intense fire eliminate the chemicals. Sesame seeds help break up the body.

Cremation takes about 24 but only about three in a diesel-powered furnace. The bones are placed in cold water mixed with milk, then crushed in a grinder into ash given to the family in an urn.

It is fairly inexpensive and avoids the expensive funeral arranges characteristic of most Kenyan society.

At Kariokor, the basic rate is Sh40,000.

Patel said men's chest area and women's hips take longest to burn because they are dense and often large.

“Fresh bodies [those with less or no hospitalisation history including morgue stay] burn very fast and can take only three hours," Patel said.

The more fat on the body, the more ghee is required to hasten burning the intestines and contents.

Besides the large quantity of ghee and simsim needed for such bodies, Patel said, the bodies must be turned occasionally to expose as much as surface as possible to the flames.

At Kariokor, there's the furnace, an outdoor cremation area with  racks for bodies and a place where wrapped bodies lie on the ground. They are adjacent to each other.

The racks, where the bodies will be cremated, are made of thick metal bars supported by four pillars two feet above the ground to support a rectangular resting surface. 

One of these racks, Patel said, has been booked by a famous former influential Kenyatta and Moi-era top official to be used for his cremation,

The elderly politician wants the traditional outdoor pyre with eucalyptus logs, ghee and simsim—no diesel furnace. That's in his will and the crematorium management knows his wishes.

Beneath the resting surface, sawdust and kindling are arranged. On the resting surface, short logs are arranged horizontally and the long logs put over them in a grid. The body, either naked or dressed, depending on culture, is laid on top of the logs. Blue gum or eucalyptus logs work best.

The body is removed from the coffin but not undressed.

“For Africans and Europeans as well as Americana, they bring their bodies dressed and in coffins. We burn them as they are, but not the coffin, Patel said.

He emphasised that they don’t allow the coffin or any other material the dead is brought with to be taken away. Coffins are later broken up and burnt separately.

Ghee is applied to the face and head before the body is drenched with it More logs are then arranged over the body before is it underneath the resting surface. Before cremation, bodies are traditionally washed in cow's milk, holy ghee, yogurt and other cow products. 

Religious rituals are performed by priests.

“The family members are allowed to pay their last respect before the fire is finally lit. When it is on, the billowing smoke cannot allow them to be around,” Patel said.

The relatives can sit under a shade on benches, conduct rituals and console each other. Hindu priests are usually present, performing rituals and saying prayers.

Children aged seven and younger are not cremated. They are buried in a separate cemetery at the facility.

At the diesel-fired furnace, a Chinese national was cremated. He was brought in a large wooden coffin by a hearse from Montezuma Monalisa Funeral Home. The body was removed into the coffin and placed in the furnace. Then it was turned on.

The 54-year-old undertaker has been in the business for more than two decades.

“I do this as a voluntary service to my country. I’m not paid a cent,” he said, explaining that is a first responder whenever there is a death in the Hindu community.

He has served many families and cremated environment icon Prof Wangari Maathai, former Safaricom boss Bob Collymore and the son of Royal Media chief SK Macharia, among others.

A review of crematorium data shows the number of cremations shot up in the months of March and April In February, 36 bodies were cremated but in March, the number was 97. By April 26, 86 bodies had been cremated.

Patel said the Hindu community donated enough logs so cremation could continue. He received many donations of logs, ghee and simsim black sesame.

The facility largely depends on donation by the Hindu community.

(Edited by V. Graham)