How mourning has been hit hard by coronavirus

Gone are the prolonged gatherings, the wailing hired mourners and the many motorbikes. It means less costs but also disorientation and lack of closure

In Summary

• Social distancing and travel restrictions meant to curb virus spread have hurt customs

• Not being able to say the last goodbye leaves you with guilt, stress and confusion

Burial is held for Anthony Waswa in Bungoma on May 20
Burial is held for Anthony Waswa in Bungoma on May 20

Ever since Covid-19 reached Kenya on March 13, mourning for many communities in western Kenya, particularly the Luo community, has been turned on its head.

From communal affairs running for days or even weeks, they have been reduced to a brief, 15-person event. Same applies to weddings and any other gathering in the spirt of social distancing.

After a few days of the disease hitting home, I wondered how mourning would be in Kenya, since we hold our cultures dearly, especially on mourning. We follow the rules, rituals and all the rites that are required of us, depending on religion and ethnicity.

After 21 days, a call came through from my mother, who informed me that death had robbed us of our dear loving grandfather. I agonised on why he had to die a week after President Uhuru Kenyatta declared a lockdown of Nairobi due to rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.


“You will need to make arrangements to come home. Remember he loved you so much and it would be a shame to just stay in Nairobi,” my mother said.

Unfortunately, I could not make it for the funeral as new rules on funerals demand that burials take place within 48 hours. My grandfather was to be buried the next day by noon. For a 97-year-old man, years of toiling and making friends with relatives and neighbours were cut short and frozen to a day of mourning and burying.

This runs counter to the Luo community culture. For a man of my grandfather’s age, culture demanded that he should be mourned and “lie in state” in the mortuary for at least two weeks before the burial.

With the new rules in place, we were reduced to mourning our patriarch through grainy photos and amateur online videos that were taken using mobile phones.

Grandpa was laid to rest and we hoped that even in his death, he would have the peace he so desired.

Two days of mourning, more bad news came through again. My aunt had answered the call and followed my grandpa. This was the second burial we were going to miss. How were we going to mourn virtually?

There is nothing abnormal about you crying or feeling bad about not attending a funeral. It will not go away immediately. Every day, you learn how to let go
Clinical psychologist Liz Gichimu


The pain of not honouring the dead, of not saying the last goodbye, is not something to brush away. This kind of stress, distress, guilt in some cases, can leave one in a state of confusion.

Clinical psychologist Liz Gichimu tells the Star the pandemic has left people distraught globally.

“We have been forced to rewrite whatever we knew to something different entirely. We cannot even predict what will happen next,” she said.

“We have lost our view about life as we knew it, so if you lose a loved one again, that’s double grieving.”

Gichimu said the burial ritual is part of the mourning process, and once that is taken away from an individual, people are left feeling destitute.

“There is nothing abnormal about you crying or feeling bad about not attending a funeral. It will not go away immediately. Every day, you learn how to let go,” she said.

A friend, Eunice Awuor, is in similar turmoil after her mother died in her rural home, yet she works in Nairobi. Awuor tried to get a permit to go for the burial but did not manage.

Nairobi Police commander James Thathi said a person wishing to attend a funeral outside a county that has restriction of movement must obtain a signed and stamped letter from their area OCS and chief. They should also present an original burial permit.

“When I went to Integrity Centre, I was told to submit papers including mum’s burial permit, which I did, but then they asked if I had a car that I was supposed to use to the burial,” Awuor said.

She had none and with that, her chances of giving her mother a deserved send-off went up in flames.

She is yet to come to terms with the fact that her loving mother was buried in her absence.

With tears rolling down her cheeks, Awuor says the death of her mother has left a big hole in her heart.

“What can I do? My world is shattered. When will this disease go away? Will I be able to mourn her the way our culture demands of us?” she wondered.

Psychologist Gichimu says when you encounter hurdles while looking for a way out, you should not lose hope.

“Do not give up. Try and see how you can engage authorities and if you think you are missing something, try and make calls to friends," she said.

"Though during this time, I know that people do not tend to think because they are bereaved.”


The Luo community is known for jealously preserving its traditions and culture.

An elder from Chemelil in Kisumu county, Joseph Oundo, says the pandemic has made the community not to observe its culture.

“After the burial pre-coronavirus, people were allowed to be in that home just to keep the family company, something that has changed,” he said.

“When an elder dies, a bull is slaughtered in his name. In fact, his own bull is slaughtered. If he did not have any, his firstborn son will have to provide one to be slaughtered.”

Oundo said all this has changed with people only allowed 48 hours with the dead.

“This is not enough. The rituals are dying very fast. We can no longer sit around fireplaces as we accompany the dead. Right now everything is being done in a hurry,” he said.

Oundo said the coronavirus has made it difficult for a person’s good deeds to be read out to the public.

“We can no longer praise our people. No eulogy is read. No playing music (disco matanga) after the burial,” he said.

But he also singled out some positives from the pandemic, including the expenses that most families go through when mourning.

“The mortuary bills have been done away with, no more cooking, no more fundraising. At least families can keep the little money they have,” he said.

Burial is held for Anthony Waswa in Bungoma on May 20, 2020.
Burial is held for Anthony Waswa in Bungoma on May 20, 2020.


A sociologist in Daystar University, Kennedy Ong’aro, said the times call for people with this kind of burden to shift their focus.

“There must be a mindset change during this period. Rituals are the avenues that can lead to the spread of infections,” he said.

Ong’aro says people should try and do social media meetings rather than the actual meetings or gatherings.

“Leave alone social gathering. Sub-chiefs must be mandated to ensure there is no cooking whatsoever in funerals because this might just be the centre of coronavirus breeding,” he said.

“Changing routines is necessary. People right now do not go to hospitals because they are afraid of hospitals. These are the times you need to do away with cultural practices.”

The sociologist says it is no longer business as usual as people who die of corona cannot be preserved.

“In Nyanza, the body is normally left to stay for the night. With this disease, it is not possible because this can be the breeding point of infections and transmissions,” he said.

Ong’aro called for civic education among people at all levels. “Sub chiefs must be able to save the lives of our people. They must be strict at all times,” he said.

Amid this cultural dilemma, the economic impact of the pandemic on funerals and burials has been devastating. Gone are the raucous hired mourners with the wailing and motorbikes spun at breakneck speed.

Also losing out are individuals and groups that specialised in catering services during such funerals, and photographers who moved from one homestead to another, taking photos and offering them at a fee.

Equally hit hard are those who offer tents and seat services. Deloitte economist Charles Karisa says these people should turn their focus to other businesses.

“For every pandemic, there is always a window of opportunity. Think of selling masks in the village. Think outside the box," he told the Star.

Edited by T Jalio