As more and more prominent Kenyans continue to opt out of the traditional burial ceremonies; and replacing the rites with cremation, there is a groundswell of questions on what cremation exactly entails.
A lot of people — both online and offline — know that cremation is “the burning of a human being’s remains, and obtaining the ashes as a gesture of final send-off instead of the traditional body-in-grave exercise”.
Some of the prominent personalities who have gone the cremation route include the Late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai who was cremated on October 8, 2011; Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, who was cremated on July 2, 2019; the Late multi-party democracy champion Kenneth Matiba, who was cremated on April 27, 2018; and renowned Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, who was cremated on May 29, 2019.
K24 news anchor, Eric Njoka, who has a vast experience in preparing the dead for send-off, sheds more light on what happens during cremation.
Njoka has been a mortician since his teenage days, and says he learnt the practice from his father.
As we set up the interview set at K24’s headquarters in DSM Place, I notice Njoka pulls a seat and leans forward in a gesture suggesting he is enthusiastic to share the flood of information he has about the subject.
“Cremation is not a new phenomenon across the world. In Kenya, however, it is being adopted gradually because it has been feared for a very long time,” says Njoka as he adjusts his body to perfectly fit in the recliner seat.
“Cremation takes two forms – the traditional cremation and the direct cremation,” says the news anchor, stamping his undoubted authority on the topic.
“Traditional cremation entails burning the body without holding a funeral ceremony; there is no prayer service, memorial ceremony or any related rites. Direct cremation, on the other hand, is the opposite of what happens under the traditional cremation,” he says.
Njoka observes that more Kenyans are opting for cremation because it is economically friendly.
“The costs range from as low as Ksh20, 000 to as high as Ksh100, 000. The differences in [cremation] prices depend on where your loved one is being cremated and the materials used in the exercise.
“There are four durations cremations can take: 8 hours, 4 hours, 1-and-a-half hours, and one that is extremely quick – 20 to 30 minutes. The 20 to 30 minutes cremation has not been adopted in Africa; it is mostly exercised in the UK and US,” says Njoka, adding: “What we are used to in Kenya is what the Asian communities do – the 8-hour or 4-hour cremation.”
Njoka says he suspects Collymore’s cremation lasted 1 hour and 30 minutes.
A body is usually cremated at temperatures ranging between 760 degrees celsius and 980 degrees celsius.
“The duration cremation lasts, depend on the family’s wishes,” says Njoka.
The newscaster highlighted to K24 Digital the steps followed in the cremation process.
“The first step in the cremation process is to get written consent from the family of the deceased.
“The second step is to know from the family how long they would want their loved one’s cremation to last.”
Cremation takes place in a cremation chamber, also known as a retort, of a crematory.
The chamber is preheated at a set point and then the body is quickly transferred there through a mechanised door to avoid heat loss.
During incineration, the body is exposed to a column of flames produced by a furnace fueled by natural gas, oils, propane, etc.
“The body is doused in a flammable substance. In Kenya, what is mostly used is kerosene and diesel. Petrol cannot be used because it is highly flammable. When diesel is used, the body burns at a faster rate than when kerosene is used,” says Njoka.
As the corpse is placed in a casket or container — preferably prepared from a combustible material –, the container burns down.
Next, the heat dries the body, burns the skin and hair, contracts and chars the muscles, vaporises the soft tissues, and calcifies the bones so that they eventually crumble. The gases released during the process are discharged through an exhaust system.
The bodies are mostly burned one at a time. There is usually no smell because the emissions are processed to destroy the smoke and vaporise the gases that would smell.
Some crematories have a secondary afterburner to help burn the body completely. Otherwise, the cremation technician may have to crush the partially cremated remains with the help of a long hoe-like rod.
“When one is cremated, the bones can burn completely, or partially. When they are retrievable, a family can choose to take them for burial.”
If a family needs the bones completely disfigured, Njoka says, the dried bone fragments are placed in a cremulator, which grounds the remains into a finer sand-like substance.
The cremation remains are usually pasty white in colour.
These remains are transferred in a cremation urn and given to the relative or representative of the deceased. If you do not have an urn, the crematorium may return the ashes in a plastic box or default container.
-ASH IS THE END PRODUCT-
The news presenter says the ideal end product of cremation is the ashes, which is taken by the deceased’s family for storage.
“The amount of ashes taken by the family would depend on the kin’s wishes. There are those who would be okay with a handful, whereas there are some who would want a significant amount of the remains.
“Cremation is scary for somebody witnessing it for the first time. However, seasoned cremators are used to supervising the process. The deceased’s family members are usually advised not to be anywhere near the cremation chamber. And, a valid part of the reason is that witnessing the process can subject family members to trauma,” says Njoka.