Away with cemeteries: Is cremation the way out?

By , K24 Digital
On Wed, 10 Jul, 2019 10:08 | 4 mins read

By Harriet James @harriet86jim

The death of Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore sent shockwaves across Kenya and the world. The Guyanese-born-British businessman, who died after battling cancer, will be remembered for his leadership in a corporation that assisted in placing the nation in the global scene in the financial and technological spheres.

What’s more striking is that like a number of prominent personalities in the country such as Nobel Peace Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, politician Kenneth Matiba, Anglican archbishop Manasseh Kuria and his wife, late cabinet minister Peter Okondo, Collymore ditched the conventional l burial rituals and settled for cremation. 

All these individuals had their own reasons for going the cremation way. Matiba made it clear to family that he wanted a private affair when he died. He claimed that traditionally, the Kikuyu did not burry their dead, but took bodies into the forest to be devoured by hyenas.

Prof Maathai made it clear that she did not wish to be buried in a wooden coffin. As someone who spent all her life safeguarding trees, she considered being buried in a wooden coffin would be antithetical to her beliefs. 

While most people think that it’s only the rich who are going this direction, a growing number of Africans are slowly embracing cremation, according to officials at the Lee Funeral Home.

“Most Africans are opting for this as it’s the easiest and cheapest way of saying goodbye. Some write wills indicating that it’s how they desire to be buried,” said a staffer at the home. 

It costs Sh40,000 for a non-Hindu to be cremated at the Hindu Crematorium in Kariokor, which is considered affordable compared to the usually drawn-out rituals for traditional funerals that costs hundreds of thousands of shillings.

Slow embrace

This has seen a shift in burial dynamics. Moses Kamau, CEO of Plenser Limited, an engineering company specialising in industrial and waste incinerators, says lack of space for burial and decent public cemeteries are among reasons  many are choosing cremation.

The crematorium. Photo/HARRIET JAMES.

“They left the countryside for the city. Even when you die, it is unlikely you will be taken back to be buried where you were born.

This means that one has two options: to be buried where you have acquired property or in a public cemetery. 

But then there is this option of being cremated,” he explains, adding that people are getting displaced, to the point that ancestors’ graves are dug up to provide space for construction.

But cremation is also dogged by myths and misrepresentations. One of the most common is that the rich burn their bodies to avoid succession wars such as having their ‘unknown’ children showing up to claim their inheritance. 

Human DNA starts degrading at 130 degrees Celsius, with complete degradation at 200 degrees Celsius. Since cremation happens at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius, with temperatures able to reach 2,000 degrees Celsius, it is not posåçcremation ashes.

However, Angus Nassir, director of Bioinformatics institute of Kenya, says there are several ways of recovering a person’s DNA.  “Through personal items left behind by the deceased,” he says, listing personal items such as toothbrush, handkerchief, clothing items and so on.

DNA banks

He also adds that a person can have a long-term storage of their DNA profiles in a DNA bank. Samples are collected when the person is alive or after death and their profile determined and stored in a database.

This ensures that a person’s DNA profile is secure and available should need arise. Only a court order or the next of kin nominated on the DNA banking certificate can access the DNA profile. 

DNA can also be found from surviving relatives including biological parent or children, with whom they share 50 per cent DNA or biological grandparents or grandchildren or biological uncles and aunts (25 per cent DNA).

“Using our Kenya DNA database and algorithms developed in our lab, we can recreate the deceased person’s full DNA STR profile with an accuracy of 99 per cent even in the absence of the biological mother of the deceased’s child or parent,” he adds.

Kamau, believes that Kenya still has a long way to go before cremation is  fully appreciated. The biggest users of cremation in Kenya is the Hindu community, whose mode, according to him, is also changing. “Initially, cremation was done on wood piers, where one would pile firewood and then place the body there to burn to ashes.

Presently, because of advancement in technology and the demand on the reduction on firewood consumption, more are opting not to go this direction,” he says.

Discarded rituals

In the Hindu culture, fire was considered to be holy according to Vedic beliefs, the mediator between God and human beings. Through cremation, it is believed that the physical remnants of the ghost are completely wiped out from the face of earth, a journey that may continue for 11 days.

In the African setup, the goal in the end was to become an ancestor. This is why importance was placed on the individual being granted a proper funeral complete with religious ceremonies.

“If this doesn’t happen, the dead might end up as a wondering spirit, unable to live properly and spending their lives haunting the living. The dead were highly respected and proper death rites in the African setting had to be followed as it was a guarantee of protection especially to those who left behind,” explains Dr Gladys Nyachieo, a sociologist.

Nyachieo adds the purpose of making the event communal is to ensure that the community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it with preceding activities meant to comfort, heal as well as uplift those who are hurting.

“The world is changing and it’s not a bad idea to embrace cremation as it costs less time and money,” concludes Nyachieo.