10 October 2011

Kenya: Cremate or Bury?


Daring the mighty and powerful the David-Goliath way is just one attribute of bravery. There is another subtle, non-physical type of courage to be found among few mortals, and that is the guts to go against the grain, the gumption to brush away stifling convention and obey the dictates of your independent reasoning. It is called playing by your own rules.

One may think it did not take courage for Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai to choose cremation over burial. She must have weighed societal rage, concern from the Church, indignant relatives, and shock by family and friends, then concluded: "It is about me and my values, not theirs."

Prof Maathai has been quoted as having said Africans should consider other means of disposing of bodies than burying their dead in coffins at the expense of trees.

Well, death and burial are never light matters in Kenya, even though Prof Maathai was by no means the first to defy tradition in matters burial.

In 2009, Ms Ruth Florence Okuthe had her sports administrator husband Joshua Okuthe cremated in the middle of a burial dispute pitting her against his Kager clan and a co-wife. Ruth insisted that it was what her husband wanted.

A court order obtained by Okuthe's sister, Deborah Odhiambo, to stop the cremation came too late. The clan termed the cremation "uncultural, inhuman, and disastrous" and buried an empty coffin at his Tamu home in Muhoroni District.

Way back in 1996, the widow of one-time Cabinet minister Peter Okondo had her husband quietly cremated, to the chagrin of his clan.

Prof Maathai's ashes will be interred within the democratic space of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, which is yet to be constructed on 50 acres at the University of Nairobi's College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, Kabete.

Democratic space is a public area which is accessible without permission and the notion behind it is to promote a vibrant democracy.

The brouhaha over this poses the question: Is there anything inherently wrong with cremation? Cost-wise, it makes sense because of reduced mortuary and burial expenses. It is also considered cleaner and therefore posing less of a health risk.

Given that the ashes are stored in an urn, some people keep them at home where they "feel" the presence of the departed one. Others scatter them from the skies in an aircraft. Sprinkling them over a river is also popular.

The Ganges River, which flows through India and Bangladesh, is a sacred watercourse where Hindus bathe, pay homage to their ancestors, and even pour the ashes of their loved ones.

Considering that the norm among Kenyan Christians is to bury a body six feet deep, some have found it difficult to accept cremation.

When Dr Katini Nzau-Ombaka, wife of the late Dr Oko Ooko Ombaka, died in the US in 2002, her ashes were buried in a coffin at her matrimonial home in Ulumbi village, Siaya District. Dr Ombaka was a former MP for Gem and lawyer at the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission of the 1990s.

Perhaps this was an effort to "normalise" the unusual occurrence of having a body brought home as ashes and not knowing what else to do with the remains. Such is our reverence and fear of the dead that many adults might not even know what happens before they finally bury the body.

When a person dies in hospital and the doctor declares the time of death, nurses are charged with the duty of preparing the body before it is handed over to mortuary attendants. Every ward has the items necessary for the task on standby.

"We have to wash the body and stuff the orifices with cotton wool to ensure that fluid from the body does not seep out," says a nurse at Kenyatta National Hospital.

The idea is to treat the body with dignity, she says. "If a patient dies with their eyes open, we have to shut them and place the limbs in a straight position. Otherwise they will stiffen and force morgue attendants to break the limbs to make them lie straight."

She adds that this is the last honour that the deceased is given. Once the body is cleaned, a tag is fixed on the foot indicating name, age, ward, and time of death.

And where handling death is a business, the efficiency of private funeral homes comes into play, which is why there is a difference between these and a mortuary. The former offers services beyond storage and preparation of the body. In a funeral parlour, everything is taken care of, including the burial, if one so wishes -- at a price, of course.

The welcoming gates at the Lee Funeral Home, Nairobi, lead to a cosy reception area. There is a certain ambience at the funeral home. A mini fountain, smoked glass windows, elegant flower arrangements, statues of saints, and a glass chandelier create a feeling of serenity.

The facility charges Sh2,500 a day for mortuary storage, Sh10,000 for embalming, and Sh5,000 for washing and preparation.

Paul van Brussel, the operations manager at Lee, says the one thing that stands out in how Kenyans handle the funeral process is the number of viewings they make.

"We have to prepare the body and sometimes even dress it in different attire for every visit," he says.

The City Mortuary is the flip side of private funeral homes like Lee. Walk through the loud yellow and green gates and a nasty smell will soon assail your nostrils. The reception area is drab.

A mortuary worker, who did not want to be named because he is not authorised to speak on behalf of City Mortuary, explained: "We cannot reject bodies brought in by the police. But we cannot work on them until a postmortem had been conducted to determine the cause of death, otherwise we may interfere with the findings."

Police case bodies are kept separate from those brought in by relatives at the facility, which holds about 160 bodies at a time. The charge for storing police case bodies is Sh300 a day while private cases pay Sh500. The special wing charges Sh700.

Unclaimed bodies are disposed of in a mass grave after being stored for a month.

"Our business is service provision, not profiteering", the official said.

Most unclaimed bodies are those of destitutes or those picked from the streets or scenes of accidents.

Families of missing people frequently find themselves at the City Mortuary as a last resort. Here, they would have to endure further agony, describing the person they are looking for, then physically searching among other bodies.

Thankfully, this may soon be a thing of the past as the administration is putting in place measures to photograph bodies then download them into a database for relatives to go through.

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