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Relatives using cremation to bury dead’s secrets

Kinyuru Munuhe @kinyurumunuhe

Africa buries her dead —whole. It is the overwhelmingly popular culture and is backed by strong beliefs –mostly that the deceased needs to use the body in the after-life.

It is the reason that one month later, residents of the remote village of Kinamba in Nyandarua county are yet to come to terms with a funeral, unlike any other to have happened in the area.

The family of a former primary school headteacher, whose son died shortly after returning from the United States where he had lived for 10 years, cremated his body in Nairobi and took the ashes back home to the village for burial.

The homestead was thronged by ‘mourners’ from far and wide, most of who were driven more by curiosity than grief after word went round that the 38-year-old man, a former medic in the US, would be buried in form of ash.

Traditional rites

During the funeral, the family  announced there would be no viewing of the body, because, well, the coffin contained but a sealed urn bearing his ashes. And just like that, the family had shattered the Kikuyu customary burial rites.

Five weeks after the funeral, villagers who talked to the People Daily at Kinamba village said they are yet to fully comprehend the culture shock of the rare funeral.

Langata cemetery crematorium in Nairobi where more than 80 bodies were turned into ashes last year. Photo/BERNARD MALONZA

However, questions and rumours have also emerged that the procedure is not as innocent as it may appear at face value.

As the shock waves began to wane, a reasoning that the cremation was hurriedly done to avoid court injunctions involving three women started to take root.  Stories that the women, who the deceased had children with before he went to the US, were in the process of seeking help through courts to inherit part of his estate resurfaced.

But with the man cremated and buried, any court action to try to prove they had children with him would be futile since his ashes cannot yield DNA samples for testing.

“We know they ‘burned’ him to scuttle efforts by women he had children with of trying to claim his estate. If he was buried, the judge could order exhumation and DNA testing,” said a local teacher who attended the funeral.

The dead man, said to have been doing well in the US had bought a 50-acre piece of land on which his father keeps pedigree Friesian cows. He had also put up a bungalow for himself and his parents. Villagers contend the family was keen to block any chances of women he had children with trying to claim the estate, and cremation was their formula.

But the Nyahururu case is not isolated. Many families have been resorting to cremating their kin to thwart possibility of legal claims of inheritance or dispute over burial site.

While traditionally only Asian, the practice has gradually been breaching the African culture of burial.

A prominent Kenyan businessman but who died a bachelor, was cremated within three days after his death for what distraught relatives said was a bid to lock out numerous women he had relationships with from claiming his fortune.

And one of Kenya’s most controversial cremation cases happened as a court order was being sought to block it. When former influential sports administrator Joshua Okuthe died in 2009, his first wife Ruth cremated his body even as the second wife, Khadija, was in the process of obtaining a court order to stop the process.

The man’s family was indignant, lost of options on how to handle his funeral since there was little precedence of cremation in Luo culture. They ended up burying a banana stump in a casket ‘to ward off bad omen’. But police then said Ruth was within her rights to cremate the deceased as she was the first of kin and had adhered to the law.

“Families are doing it to avoid paternity disputes or claims on the estate of their late kin. Even homicide cases can be frustrated if cremation is done before post-mortem is done or DNA samples taken,” says a senior Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) officer.

Legal loopholes

Kenya’s legal framework  does not help much. The statutes do not explicitly provide for a sample to be taken for possible future DNA claims before cremation which means one can incinerate evidence forever and without breaking any law.

About 80 bodies were cremated at the Langata cemetery last year, according to head of the crematorium Nderitu Maina.

Half of them were foreigners or unclaimed bodies. The others were Kenyans, the majority of them male. In at least five cases, widows cremated their husbands’ bodies accompanied by just a few relatives, according to a register book.

Marital relationships expert, Pastor Joe Kiage says that most cremations of Kenyans happen amid family disputes.

“One side of the family just decides to cremate the body and forestall long court disputes, mostly over property or burial site,” he says.

“Cremation is final, it ends the burial site dispute and erases possibility of DNA testing. That’s why some families who expect such disputes resort to it. Most of those cremated are men, few women are subjects of disputes. It’s men who have multiple families and children outside wedlock, not women,” he adds.

Chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor says ashes burnt at more than  2,000 degrees Celsius are completely dry and cannot be useful for any test of identification.

In developed countries where identification procedures are advanced, samples must be taken and identity tests done and recorded just in case of future reference requirement.

The records in a country like Britain include dental, finger prints, blood group and DNA. Even after cremation, a person’s blood relative can still be traced. In case of such missing records, the law provides for tests to be done on blood relatives for identification of relatives.

In Kenya, however, once the first person is cremated, the law does not talk about third party relatives to be tested for proof of bloodline identity. All evidence goes up in the furnace.

“It becomes very difficult to pursue a case where a DNA sample is required but has not been preserved. The law is not quite explicit,” Gilbert Maina, a family law specialist says.


Maina says the diesel-charged furnace reduces an average adult body to just a kilogramme of ash.

According to medics, when cremation is properly performed, the heat is so extreme that no living material exposed to it can survive.

And under the Births and Deaths Registration Act CAP 149, burying and cremation are the only recognised methods of disposing of bodies in Kenya.

However, when many Kenyans seek court orders in funeral dispute, they take injunctions to stop burial but not cremation. So, even with such an injunction, the respondent may still go ahead and cremate without breaking the law.  And so, from dust to ashes go many Kenyan men, and with them all trace of their identity on earth.

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