CREMATION DEBATE

How funerals moved from cultural practices to money making enterprises

What is this wealth that can only be made during this time of profound grief?

In Summary

• Beneath the veneer of anguish about the cancer menace, discussions have been raging on the appropriateness of cremation as the preferred mode of human body disposal upon death.

•  It should be understood that these corrupt behaviors of the funeral organizing committees should not be the excuse for recommending practices that have no bearing on the departed’s cultural orientation

Nderitu Maina who is in charge of Langata cemetery and doubles up as a crematorium technician on February 28 2017
Nderitu Maina who is in charge of Langata cemetery and doubles up as a crematorium technician on February 28 2017
Image: FILE

Last month, Kenya lost three illustrious leaders and they all succumbed to cancer.

These are Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, Kibra MP Ken Okoth and Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso. 

While Collymore's send-off was colourful and Laboso's without intrigues and tension, the same cannot be said of Okoth's.

His final resting place and how he was to be disposed caused division in the family.

Beneath the veneer of anguish about the cancer scourge, discussions have been raging on the appropriateness of cremation as the preferred mode of human body disposal.

Many commentators have come out to justify the convenience and economic viability of burning the bodies. They aver that the normal funeral ceremonies involving burial is cumbersome and a burden to families. It is considered that Kenyans spend inordinate amounts of money to inter their beloved ones.

This money could be put to better use instead of what is taken to be an extravagance and unnecessary wastage in entertaining mourners. It is further argued that families always struggle to raise funds to meet the expectations of mourners, and most of this is but vanity.

This has been considered to be the reason why upon death, many families rush to preserve the bodies in mortuaries. This would give them ample time to fundraise to finance huge funeral budgets. The families have more often than not been taken advantage of by politicians for narrow parochial interests through these fundraising events.

There are occasions when bodies have made to lie in state for far too long awaiting the collection of funds to fund items that are not core to the funeral. These have caused unnecessary delays and untold anguish to the bereaved families. While many politicians relish such occasions to demonstrate their rare character of generosity and benevolence, families and friends carry the burden of prolonged sorrow and anguish.

Other than the politicians, there are also unscrupulous business people who have turned these solemn occasions into money-minting events. They are joined at the hip by callous and greedy relatives who seek to profit at any opportunity. These two groups take advantage of the fragile psychological status of the immediate families to make unbearable demands. It is against this background that some pundits have pushed the agenda of cremation as a better option to the long-held tradition of burying.

However, it should be understood that these corrupt behaviours of the funeral organising committees should not be the excuse for recommending practices that have no bearing on the departed’s cultural orientation.

A funeral is the last of the three most important events in a human being’s life. Unlike other animals, human beings attach immense significance on birth, marriage and death. These occasions are normally celebrated with pomp and fanfare.

The celebrations are normally guided by the respective traditions of the person concerned within the cultural orientation of the community. Culture is the regular observance of practices to mark events and regulate the relationships among humankind. The regular observance of these agreed upon practices constitute traditions that in themselves are unique to a community and society.

IMPORTANT EVENTS

A funeral is the last of the three most important events in a human being’s life. Unlike other animals, human beings attach immense significance on birth, marriage and death. These occasions are normally celebrated with pomp and fanfare.

In Kenya, for example, the traditions governing birth, marriage and death are not the same among the Luo, the Kikuyu, the Luhya, the Kisii, the Kamba, the Giriama, the Nandi and the Keiyo. The traditions vary even further among races. Therefore, the way Africans conduct their traditions around these events is starkly different from Europeans, Indians, Arabs, Jews and Latinos, among others. At the basic level, there is no economic consideration for the observance of these rites of passage. Every family is always allowed the latitude to perform these ceremonies according to their will and capacity.

The most important issue is OBSERVANCE of the rite. Each ceremony has standard operating procedures (SOPs) as coded and handed down generations by community sages. These SOPs are community specific and have been developed within the context of the respective community’s historical orientation. The observance of these traditions assures humankind of cosmic balance as the old Pharaonic Egypt would argue. The uniqueness of these traditions and their being community specific, provides for the special characterisation of a community of people at the levels of family, clan, tribe, lingua-cultural groups and races.

It would, therefore, be more prudent if communities were left to inter their beloved ones according to their respective cultural practices. Neo-modernists should desist from piling undue pressure on individuals, family and friends to drop their traditions, which may be considered uneconomical and backward.

They should further not be forced to adopt practices from other cultural groupings to satisfy expedient considerations. Almost all the times, these considerations are made out of ignorance and pedantic justifications. Many arguments for what appears modern and convenient are based on the half-baked understanding of their true cultural framework.

Today many Kenyans are being pushed through mob psychology to adopt cremation. Its proponents argue that it is economical and without much fuss. It is convenient and saves the family and friends time. Further that it is environmentally friendly and frees the dwindling land resource for agriculture. If critically assessed, these reasons do not hold much water.

It should be understood that funerals are not economic enterprises but solemn occasions when and where relatives and friends perform the final rites for their beloved ones. The relatives and friends will perform these as per their respective abilities. Traditions for these ceremonies, the world over do not demand outrageous sacrifices to be made. Not even the extravagance we see today.

Cremation itself is not as cheap as it is being presented. The amount and type of wood, the oil fuel and hire of the crematorium are not pocket change for the ordinary folks. The case for convenience is as well overrated. Have the protagonists considered the kind of long winding queues at the few crematoria if all Kenyans were to adopt cremation as the SOP for interment? It appears convenient now because of limited use. The time considered as wasted at burials is a nebulous argument. If well organised, burials would take optimal time. In any case, burial is a one-off event.

Cremation itself is not as cheap as it is being presented. The amount and type of wood, the oil fuel and hire of the crematorium are not pocket change for the ordinary folks. The case for convenience is as well overrated.

Surely what is this wealth that can only be made during this time of profound grief? If the majority of the world and specifically Kenyans were to embrace cremation, the amount of smoke released into the atmosphere cannot be considered as environment-friendly.

The impact on the ozone layer will be surely a subject of many debates at Unep. Clearly, the four by seven by six feet grave cannot be the panacea to the challenges of our national food security. Of the human societies that cremate, Hindus are the best known. They cremate because their religion, which is part of their culture, prescribes so.

They arrange swift cremation, ideally within 24 hours. The fire and accompanying rites sever ties to earthly life and give momentum to the soul for its continuing spiritual journey. 

The process assures a more complete release of the soul than a burial, which preserves the soul’s psychic connection to its just-ended earthly life. All attention is on a singular goal, as expressed in this prayer from the Rig Veda: “Release him again, O Agni, to the fathers. The one offered to you now proceeds to his destiny. Putting on new life, let him approach the surviving, let him reunite with a new body, All-Knowing One!” (10. 16. 5).  

Hindus believe in reincarnation. They do not believe in the bodily resurrection and the reuniting of each soul with its physical body, so they place no importance on preserving the corpse, which is the intent of burial in African traditions, Christianity and Islam.