A few minutes after 2pm Friday, a strong and invasive smell of diesel permeated the cold and humid air at the Lang’ata Crematorium, quickly spreading across the cemetery and then beyond the bounds of the fence.
Minutes later, a moderately thick whirl of grey smoke lazily billowed through the towering grey brick chimney, signalling the start of the slow six to seven-hour process of interring the remains of the late Kenneth Matiba.
As the body was reduced to ashes and the smoke wafted above the thousands of white, arched and heart-shaped concrete tombstones that litter Lang’ata Cemetery and Crematorium, it was evident that Matiba departed the same way he lived his exemplary life -- by challenging the norms.
Instead of being buried as per dictates of the customs and traditions of his ancestors, Matiba opted for cremation. According to his family, he made the decision 25 years ago when he declared his wish disgusted by the high costs and glamour surrounding burials of high-profile individuals like him which he deemed unnecessary.
However, despite the warm, quiet and low-key cremation accorded to him, the day was not so smooth for his family.
Initially, the family had scheduled for Matiba’s body to leave the Lee Funeral Home at 9.15 in the morning, after which it would be driven to the crematorium. By half past nine, however, only a handful of family members had arrived at the funeral home.
“The family is tired. The past few days have been intense and have taken a toll on them,” said a source.
Police officers assigned to escort the procession waited patiently outside the funeral home in their white helmets, neon green reflector jackets, heavy brown khaki pants and knee-long black boots.
By 11.50am, the family was yet to arrive from their home in Riara Ridge, Limuru. Reports indicated that the family was still at the Village Market. Nearly half an hour later, at around 12.25pm, family members started to stream in, grieving in privacy behind the heavily-tinted windows of the Mercedes minivans they came in.
A spokesman asked the members of the press covering the event not to follow the procession to the last funeral service, exclusively for the family, explaining that the Matiba’s needed some privacy.
The family’s motorcade promptly left the morgue, situated along Argwings Kodhek Road, making the half hour drive to the crematorium via Mbagathi Way and Lang’ata Road.
As early as 7am, there was heavy police presence outside and inside the crematorium, even as sources revealed that the facility had experienced a minor robbery during the night. It was not clear what was stolen.
Again, the press was not permitted to enter the crematorium, until after the family left at around 2.30pm. By the time of the body’s arrival, a group of about 50 Kenyans had gathered outside the crematorium’s gate to bid farewell to Matiba. However, they too were denied entry. While most of them stood quietly and strained to catch a glimpse from the sidelines, one man, an ardent supporter of Matiba, sang and danced as he bid him goodbye in his own special way.
Shortly after the lighting of the fire, Matiba’s family members drove out of the crematorium, led by two police outriders and chase cars from the Kilimani and Gigiri police stations. A worker described Matiba’s final send-off as intimate, emotional and beautiful.
“Only around 150 people attended, just immediate family members,” he said. The ceremony was short, barely lasting 20 minutes.
The ceremony was opened by slow and gracefully beautiful funeral hymns. After the hymns, an archbishop delivered a brief sermon, just around five minutes long. Thereafter, the archbishop prayed for the family and for Matiba’s body, before it was wheeled out of the service area into the crematorium using a casket trolley.
While the venue of the ceremony was beautiful and elegant, it still spoke of familial affection united in grief. The mourners sat in two white tents, a small and medium-sized one. Vertical white and light-yellow flower arrangements lined the concrete wall columns, as the family members sat on padded chairs decorated in crisp-white fabric covers. During the service, the body was placed on a platform located on a concrete dais, inside the larger tent.
Security was extremely high outside the crematorium, as police zealously guarded the burning body.
Hitan Majevdia, the Nairobi County Minister for Health, defended the heavy guard, saying it was out of respect for the privacy of Matiba and his family.
Personnel at the crematorium said Matiba’s coffin would be wheeled into the kiln, after which it would be doused in 40 litres of diesel. The kiln would be shut, then the flames lit. While earlier reports revealed one family member would be selected by the others to light the fire, it is unclear who lit it. A typical cremation at the facility costs Sh16,800.
Thereafter, the bones will be ground and, together with the ashes, placed in an urn and given to the family. It is not clear what the family will do with the ashes.