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Fancy an elders’ funeral getaway?

For most, burials are sad and sacred, but for some aged individuals it is something of a chance for a road trip or is it?

Lonely and idle elderly citizens in rural Kenya have found an eerie and melancholic mitigation for the emptiness of life beyond middle age in attending funerals and burials.

This seems the antithesis of common trends across the world, where human attrition is dreaded and burials treated with awe and trepidation. 

But, these avid funeral goers in parts of Kenya represent a queer exception. To them, weekend burials provide something of welcome breaks from the monotony of drab life and tired routines. So prevalent among them is the predisposition to attend funerals.

Born of the African tenets of condoling with the bereaved, loneliness, boredom and search for relevance seem to be behind the newely entrenched culture of serial mourning.

Communities in western Kenya tend to be sucked in, perhaps due to the increasingly colourful nature of their funeral ceremonies. And with the fidelity to strong family values, almost everyone is another one’s relative as genealogical steps are often traced to a common patriarch or matriarch from distant past. This renders any funeral exhibiting even the faintest whiff of kinship a must-attend.

Serial mourning

Dorcas Ogwel attended scores of funerals in 2018. She is believed to be approaching 100 years, though she does not know her real age. At her advanced age and with her siblings and all her children long departed, Ogwel traverses rural Nyanza counties to attend funerals of extended family whenever there is bereavement.

“They are very important to me so I have to show my support whenever they run into trouble. Besides, they are the closest people I have as family. It is a pity that young people do not know all their relatives,” she remarked when asked why she must attend all these funerals. Itineraries are fixed and the best wears are reserved for funerals.

The resident of Homa Bay county has travelled to Migori and Siaya counties for these funeral, and  she never goes empty handed. As per traditional dictates, she will arrive with sheep or goat or a bag of maize, depending on what is available at the time, all paid for by her grand and great-grand children.

Cultural practices aside where certain rituals have to be performed some ostensibly by the elderly generation priding themselves in being custodians of societal traditions, the weekend burials have mutated into a getaway of sorts for this generation. 

They purpose to attend numerous burials around them to catch up with old friends and meet long lost kin. “I have to go for these funerals so that I also have company whenever tragedy strikes around me. Death is inevitable and the most we can do is condole with the bereaved. If  I do not, then I will be left alone,” said another avid funeral goer.

Naomi, a retired nurse in Nakuru, accompanied her friend to a funeral in Kitui,  where her friend’s daughter is married. The deceased is in no way related to Naomi and is only obscurely related to her friend’s daughter. But there being nothing much to do in Nakuru, the two made it to Kitui to show solidarity with her friend’s daughter.

Diminishing values

This precedent is unimaginable, even frowned upon in other communities. Elsewhere, retirees travel around the world playing cat and mouse with winter so as to avoid discomfort in their golden ages.

But for demographic segmentations unaccustomed to holidaying cultures like the Europeans nor rich enough to afford a warm weather frolic along the sandy beaches after hitting retirement, funerals appear to provide welcome weekend getaways for some elderly in parts of Kenya.

For decades now, the rural populace long made it a routine to religiously listen to obituaries on vernacular radio just in case death befell their kindred and they did not know. Connections to dead relatives often catalyse phone calls to further spread news and seek facilitation to attend these funerals from able kinsmen.

This trend might have otherwise continued unnoticed if not for the rising cost of living and diminishing family values. The urban-bred younger generations in a largely poor society feel burdened funding the numerous funeral visits by their elderly kinsmen.

“We need to pay for parents to go on holidays or else they will continue going for funerals every weekend,” pointed out one social media user acutely aware of the trend.

Sociologist Geoffrey Wango says it is not just an African thing for elderly people to have affinity with funerals. “When you are young you see death as a distant thing and you don’t believe it can occur to you. But as you grow older you start seeing your age mates and friends die. Attending their funerals helps people to accept and embrace death as part of a life circle,” says Wango.

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