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It’s ash-to-ash send-off that Matiba chose in 1994

Once larger-than-life profile of veteran politician will end up in a furnace behind the metallic door of cremation chamber at Lang’ata Cemetery this morning

Kinyuru Munuhe @kinyurumunuhe

“Oh mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well!” Shakespeare in his play, Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare’s words, spoken through his character, Mark Anthony, as he beheld the fallen Caesar, easily come to mind when one stands in front of the Lang’ata Cemetery crematorium, where the body of former Cabinet minister and once powerful Opposition icon Kenneth Matiba, will be cremated this morning.

That the once larger-than-life profile of Matiba will end up in a furnace behind the metallic door of the cremation chamber is bound to beggar belief among the multitude of his supporters who may have been expecting a traditional grand funeral ceremony in his ancestral home in Murang’a county.

Workers prepare Lang’ata cemetery crematorium ahead of today’s cremation of Kenneth Matiba’s body. Photo/BERNARD MALONZA

With two funeral services having been conducted on Wednesday in Nairobi and yesterday in Murang’a, Matiba’s immediate family members and few invited close friends will this morning gather outside the red-roof building that houses the crematorium to bid him the final farewell in the rare manner that is still yet to gain acceptance among many African communities.

For Matiba, who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1992 under the mantra ‘Let the People Decide’, he made his decision to be cremated on February 7, 1994 and announced it to the media.

Yesterday, the People Daily set out to establish details of the cremation funeral at Lang’ata Cemetery in which only a minimal number of mourners, mostly relatives of the deceased, will be allowed to attend.

A walk into the Lang’ata crematorium yard, at a corner of the cemetery facing Lang’ata road, requires patience and relative composure especially for a first-time visitor not accustomed to the eerie, dead silence of this place. The crematorium was yesterday undergoing preparation in readiness for today’s event.

The head of the crematory, Nderitu Maina, who has been operating it for almost 20 years, led two others in clean-up of the furnace chamber and testing of its metal doors and chimney that sucks up smoke.

Matiba’s cremation will be conducted by Maina. The furnace is housed in a small building of white-painted walls, with a towering chimney and a smoke-charred brick roof that bears the evidence of the hot furnace beneath. A peek inside reveals two rooms with large brick furnaces, which is the incineration chamber.

Modern crematories use industrial electrified furnaces, but for the 1958-made Lang’ata crematorium, the furnaces are old models that use diesel in a slow process that takes seven to eight hours to complete, according to Maina.

The Matiba family had by yesterday already paid the Sh16,800 fee required for cremation.

Like other families who use the service, the Matibas have already been advised to keep the number of those attending small because of space limitation in a waiting area that has only a few wooden benches.

They have also been advised to plan to be there in time and to stay for only for a short while after the cremation starts, then leave. The family will be notified to collect the ashes if they wish.

“The process takes about eight hours and we advise family members not to wait. Some family members request to be allowed to light the fire.

After that we advise them to leave because they may not withstand the sound of the furnace and the smoke,” said Maina. They have been told that when the body arrives one family member will be called to identify it and sign papers.

Matiba at the expansive Wangu Embori Farm in Timau, Meru county. Photo/COURTESY

All jewelry or metal devices are removed to prevent reaction during the cremation process.

Unlike in burials, bodies are transferred into a combustible casket that disintegrates easily inside the cremation chamber that will heat to temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees.

Families booking for cremation are advised to only hire a casket for use during prayer services and to return it to the funeral home after it delivers the body to the crematorium. The shiny-black casket that Matiba had been placed in during services will not be put into the furnace, Maina said.

The family members are allowed final viewing before the body is taken in. After the cremation, the amount of ash the family has requested is packed in urns or transparent vases and labelled for collection.

By yesterday the crematorium was yet to receive instructions for Matiba’s ashes but the operator said such large families often order a large number of vases for ash to distribute among family members who may ask for it, to be kept or to bury.

However, the Langata crematorium is not a busy terminal address for many Kenyans yet. “In a year, we have just about 50 cremations and many of them are foreigners or Kenyans of Asian or European descent,” said the operator.

Matiba’s body, according to a family source, was scheduled to be returned to Lee Funeral Home yesterday evening after a final church service in Murang’a, from where it will be taken to Lang’ata this morning. Only close family members were privy to a closely guarded final ceremony programme.

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