People Daily

Why people are going ‘ashes to ashes’ way

Catherine Njiru @PeopleDailyKE

In Kenya it is usual for someone to dictate the exact place where they want to be buried. For those without land, their final destination would probably be Lang’ata Cemetery in Nairobi. However, with the rising cost of burial ceremonies and the fact that Lang’ata Cemetery was declared full in 2008, an increasing number of Kenyans are going against the grain, preferring to have their bodies cremated rather than buried.

Cremation is the disposal of a dead person’s body by burning it to ashes, after a funeral ceremony. In Kenya, the Hindu community widely practice cremation. However, things are changing and some Kenyans are embracing cremation, an exercise considered taboo in many African communities. Wekesa Mukhebi father’s threw the family into a spin when upon his death they discovered that he wished to be cremated and not buried, leaving the family in a catch-22 situation.

“We were shocked. We knew this the day he passed on after his elder brother revealed those were his wishes. Back in the village, people were utterly shocked about the revelation because his stature befitted a decent send off,” Wekesa says.

Still, everyone knew what would happen if they were to go against a dead man’s final wishes, so they had no choice, but to cremate his body. Many people did not attend the ceremony, fearing the wrath of their forefathers. “How could they? When the common belief is that (and even the bible says) that we were made from soil and we will in the end become soil?”

Wekesa wonders. Ironically, Wekesa is warming up to the idea of being cremated, given that the family did not spend a lot of money to inter his father’s body. “Just like my father, when I die, I would like members of my family to cremate my body and preserve my ashes. The process was effortless and didn’t leave our family in debt,” the 35-year-old father of two says.

He explains that their ancestral home is in western Kenya, near the Uganda border and the cost of ferrying bodies to the region, often leaves many families saddled with debt. He believes that Kenya’s population is fast growing and soon there will be no space to bury the dead. Wekesa believes that more Kenyans are opting for cremation because the costs involved are much lower than funeral expenses.

He is not alone. “Until five years ago, Kenyans never visited this place. Today, so many people want to give cremation a try,” says Robert Mwania, a 45-year-old who has worked at the Hindu Crematorium in Kariakor for more than 20 years. Across the 18 cremation centres in the country, 100 Kenyas are cremated on average every month.

“Here, we cremate at least four every month,” Mwania says. According to Joseph Kioko, an attendant at the Hindu Crematorium in Kariakor, since 2011 after Africa’s first female Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai’s cremation, the facility has seen an increase of Kenyan clients. They have mini facilities in Kisumu, Thika and Mombasa.

Since its a private facility, they charge Sh18,000 for cremation using firewood and Sh24,000 for electric cremation. For Kenyans, families part with Sh40,000 for either of the two procedures, with a deposit of Sh20,000, payable two days before the actual cremation day. When cremating, ghee, sesame seeds, incense sticks and white or red pieces of cloth for covering the dead body are used.

Sesame seeds help shatter the body into tiny bits to allow it to burn faster while ghee fastens the burning. After the process the bones are put in a grinder and crushed into ashes and put in an urn, which the family receives to preserve.

A family could decide to commit the ashes to an indoor or outdoor mausoleum, inter the remains in a burial port or put the urn in a garden and they also have the option of scattering the remains in a place that was special to the person.

But as much as everyone agrees on the rising funeral costs that will end up forcing people to cremate, John Mwangi, a 33-year-old hawker prefers burying his loved ones. “We have our own traditions and cultures to preserve, so why should we adapt Hindu traditions?” he asks.

Mary Musyoka, a high school teacher couldn’t agree more. “Why do we always want to follow what others are doing at the expense of our own culture? I would never advice anyone to cremate. I find cremation so inhuman. Me burn my loved ones? No,” she says with finality.

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