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TO BURY OR TO BURN?

Ashes to ashes: Acceptance of cremation as burial costs rise

As society changes, tradition is losing its hold and burials are becoming less of an elaborate cultural affair.

In Summary

• Wealthy and prominent politicians, church leaders and sports personalities increasingly are opting out of traditional burial ceremonies and choosing cremation.

• Prominent individuals who opted for cremation include former head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and pro-democracy icon Kenneth Matiba.

Cremation of former state Senior council Satish Gautama at Kariorkor crematorium.
Cremation of former state Senior council Satish Gautama at Kariorkor crematorium.
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

For generations, Kenya’s diverse communities have revered rituals associated with burying the dead and the customs and practices were strictly adhered to.

But as society changes, tradition is losing its hold on many practices and burials are becoming less of a cultural affair.

Burial ceremonies and rites can be elaborate and involve whole communities. Families fight over where the burial site should be, on which side of the family, for example.

 
 
 

However, wealthy and prominent politicians, church leaders and sports personalities are increasingly opting out of the traditional burial ceremonies and choosing cremation, some against the will of their relatives and clans.

Former head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini,90, was cremated last week.

Other prominent individuals who chose cremation include Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, pro-democracy icon Kenneth Matiba, Africa Classic golf champion Peter Njiru, former minister Kipng’eno Ng’eny and Anglican archbishop Manasses Kuria and his wife Mary Nyambura.

Nairobi Health executive Hitan Majevdia told the Star in a phone interview that when prominent individuals choose to be cremated, more Kenyans start accepting it over burial.

“When Matiba was cremated, there was a surge in the number of those seeking to cremated,” Majevdia said.

He said at Lang’ata crematorium, about 20 bodies are cremated in a month.

The county has encouraged residents to adopt cremation by lowering cremation fees and increasing burial costs.

 
 
 

“There is no land in Nairobi and even if it is there, it is very expensive. Kenyans should adopt cremation instead of struggling to buy burial space, which is not there,” the executive said.

CREMATION IS CHEAPER

The Nairobi government charges Sh13,000 for cremating adults, Sh6,000 for children and Sh4,000 for infants.

On the other hand, it costs Sh30,500 to bury an adult in a permanent grave in Lang'ata Cemetery. Permanent graves for non-citizens cost Sh50,000 for adults, Sh35,000 for children and Sh27,500 for infants.

Burying children who die in Nairobi costs as much as Sh22,500 and infants Sh15,500. The fee for children from other counties is Sh28,500 and Sh21,500 for infants.

Nderitu Maina, who is in charge of Lang'ata Cemetery and doubles as a crematorium technician on February 28, 2017.
Nderitu Maina, who is in charge of Lang'ata Cemetery and doubles as a crematorium technician on February 28, 2017.
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

For a temporary grave, one must pay  Sh7,000 for an adult, Sh4,000 for a child and Sh2,000 for an infant.

A. Mutindi from the Lee Funeral Homes told the Star that they charge Sh65,000 for cremation, while the same amount can hire a seven-seater van to Western Kenya for a one-day burial ceremony.

The Hindu Crematorium charges a flat rate of Sh10,000 for a member and Sh22,500 for a non-Hindu.

While it’s cheaper to cremate, Health executive Majevdia notes that many Kenyans abhor or dislike cremation because of religious and cultural beliefs. 

CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Some Christians oppose creation because they believe in the resurrection of the body of Judgment Day.

Gospel singer Ben Githae says he prefers burial to cremation. 

"There is a culture that guides us Christians and as one of them, I choose to follow it.  When Jesus died, there was a grave that was prepared for Him and that is whom we emulate,” Githae told the Star.

He says Jesus' grave was visible and that is what he would emulate and come resurrection, he will be easily identified.

Nameless, a popular secular musician, says he would want to be buried in an event where mourners will visit and pay respects to his grave.

I want my kids to have somewhere to come and visit in case they want to remember me. Many people follow what they have been brought up knowing or what they end up believing,” Nameless said.

Actor Charles Bukeko, popularly known as Papa Shirandula, said according to his Luhya culture, people are not supposed to be invited for burial. Instead, they should come and “celebrate life with the dead.”

“My culture demands a ceremony during burial and everything about my culture is ceremonial: You buy a car, it becomes a ceremony, you get a baby, the same, you die, you are celebrated,” Bukeko said.

He said death is a process of life and the dead have to be respected. He said that even after a thief dies, he is not called thief because it’s a ‘reunion’ season.

Gospel singer Betty Bayo said cremation is part of Hindu culture.

“I have a phobia about cremation because it does not happen around the people I live with,” Bayo said.

Cremation is forbidden in Islam.

Imam Mohammed Habib said a body must be buried intact and never cremated or harmed in any way as it should be respected, whether alive or dead.

“Burying the deceased bestows honour and respect on that person. Harming a dead person is the same as harming the living,” Mohammed told the Star.

According to the Koran, death is not an end but a transformation, he said.

He noted that Muslim burial practices focus on preparing the body for entrance into a purer, more holy form of existence.

Throughout a Muslim funeral, Mohamed said, the body is handled with extreme care. Cremation completely destroys the body. It is, therefore, forbidden.

MIXED REACTIONS AMONG CHRISTIANS

For most Christian leaders, to bury or to cremate is purely a personal or family decision.

Anglican Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit said the Bible does not specify a particular procedure for disposing of the dead.

He noted that historically, a number of African communities did not bury their dead and said the burial customs we practice are borrowed from other parts of the world.

“In Palestine, they used to bury the dead. The custom then went to Rome, then England before coming to Africa,” Sapit said.

 The Archbishop said the Kikuyu and the Maasai never used to bury their dead.

“The Maasai used to leave the body outside the homestead for lions or hyenas to devour. They could even slaughter a goat and leave it outside to attract wild animals,” he said.

A cremation ceremony at Kariokor.
A cremation ceremony at Kariokor.
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

Similarly, Tibetan Buddhists in Tibetan regions have practised sky burials for many years. The bodies are left on mountain tops to be eaten by animals, or placed on platforms where vultures devour them. After all, the spirit is gone, they say and what happens to the body doesn't matter.

Mombasa Diocese Vicar General Wilybard Lagho says the Catholic Church does not have an issue with cremation.

“It's one’s choice but ashes should not be scattered. There is no mention of cremation in the Bible but when someone dies, the soul leaves and the body remains with no value. So, there is no difference whether someone is buried or cremated,” he said.

However, Benjamin Mutungi a Pentecostal pastor in Nairobi, objects.

“Jesus was buried after he died on the cross. All fathers of faith from Abraham to Joseph were also buried. I think burying the dead honourably is the path God wishes for his people,” Mutungi said.

So, why do Hindus and Sikh cremate?

Pandit Trivedi from SSDS temple says Hindus do not believe in the bodily resurrection and the reuniting of each soul with its physical body. They thus place no importance on preserving the corpse, which is the intent of burial in Christianity and Islam.

They see the body as a prison for the soul, one that generates attachments and desires that prevent forward progress towards freedom. In Hindu funerals, therefore, the role of cremation is to sever the ties of the soul to the body that it is leaving, freeing it to move.

Trivedi, however, says babies below three months and infants may be buried for they are believed to be pure and unattached to their bodies.

Singh Khalsa-Lakhvir, a former Visual editor at the Star, said Sikhs cremate for spiritual reasons. 

Since Sikhs believe that soul is immortal and does not die, he said they burn the physical and mortal remains to totally detach the soul from the body as it journeys back to its Creator.

As per Sikhi, the soul’s divine purpose is to further its journey beyond the physical.

“Cremation is done to confine the physical remains and respectfully and graciously return them to the five elements of which fire is one of them,” Khalsa said.

He noted that cremation is a dignified way to return the body to the earth, and helps absolve the family the burden of the upkeep of the grave or mausoleum. The body, as a temporary vessel for the soul, is humbly surrendered to flames to ensure nothing except its ashes remain behind to return to dust.

In the Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, makes a subtle reference to the physical being returned to the physical elements of earth by way of fire. Sikh philosophy lays more emphasis on the soul and not on the body, which, however, is to be respected as the abode of the Lord so long as there is life in it.

The body is thus, equally accorded with respect and dignity when it finally fulfills its mortal purpose, Khalasa said.

BUDDHISM AND CREMATION

Cremation is common among Buddhists. Because the Buddha was himself cremated, many Buddhists chose cremation.

Burial is also permissible.

CREMATION PROCESS

Cremation must be done meticulously, says Nderitu Maina, who is in charge of the Lang’ata Crematorium.

“The process takes six to seven hours and involves the burning of the body inside the coffin, in line with Health ministry regulations,” Nderitu said.

The temperature is  1,000 to 2,000 degrees Celsius.

Cremation begins at the mortuary, where a family requests and pays for a notice for cremation. This is presented to the crematorium.  The coffin is then wheeled into the kiln before its heavy door, reinforced with mortar, is shut and the diesel-fuelled fire lit at the head of the coffin. A body requires about 40 litres of diesel to burn fully.

The family selects one member to light the fire.

Maina said the few bones left and the ashes are then taken to the mortuary for collection by relatives in urns.

“The ashes weigh between half or quarter a kilo,” he said.

Families can choose to have their relatives cremated at an open kiln as they watch or at a closed one.

Some people want their ashes scattered. Others want urns in a family tomb. 

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