Though accepted, cremation is neither African nor Christian

For Christians, any act that deliberately “desecrates” the body is considered utterly abhorrent. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Africa has recently mourned the passing of a great religious icon – the renowned South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Soon after we lost yet another global icon – Richard Leakey, the highly respected Kenyan palaeontologist.

By some strange coincidence, Dr Leakey departed same day with Charles Njonjo, the first African Attorney General of Kenya. The messages of condolences and the tributes showered upon these great men were well deserved – having diligently served humanity at different levels. For this we celebrate them.

But just like they captured much attention in life, so also, the funerals of these three men have precipitated a passionate debate around the disposal of dead bodies. In their wishes, Charles Njonjo had opted for cremation – in which the body is burned to ashes, while Bishop Tutu went for the newer method of aquamation – in which the body is dissolved in alkaline water.

Strangely, however, Richard Leakey broke ranks with his colleagues and went for the traditional burial. His wish was to be buried at his favourite ridge overlooking the majestic Rift Valley. This the family honoured and therefore buried him in a private ceremony a day after he passed on.

The choices by Tutu and Njonjo have rekindled debate on whether such practices are acceptable among Africans. To this end, I have received several enquiries, especially from Christians since Archbishop was a Church leader of high standing. Furthermore, in Kenya, we have had other key Church leaders such as Archbishop Manassas Kuria and his wife who also opted for cremation.

About two years back, I actually discussed this matter in this space. My argument then, by which I still stand, was that cremation was neither African nor Christian. Cremation is an extremely unpopular practice among Africans – hence the debate every time it happens. It runs counter-culture to the African concept of life and death.

Most African communities treat their dead with utmost respect and honour, with the core belief that death is not the end of life. Instead, death ushers one into the afterlife where they continue to participate in the affairs of the living. Therefore, “burning a person” would imply the total termination of life. Of course, we know better.

It is interesting that the choice by Leakey to be buried seems to have some African cultural roots. It is reported that when his father Louis Leakey died, Mary Leakey, wife to Louis wanted the body cremated.

Smoke billowing from a chimney at Kariokor Crematorium, January 2, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

However, her son Richard argued that such an act was forbidden among the Kikuyu, the tribe into which his father Louis had apparently been initiated. Richard Leakey not only countermanded the family wishes, but in his own words, became very nasty about it. He thus prevailed and had the father buried in Kikuyuland.

On the other hand, cremation – or the new acquamation – is not Christian. Traditional Christian faith considers such practices inconsistent with orthodox doctrine. It dehumanises the body, which is considered the epitome of God’s creation and the temple of the Holy Spirit. For Christians, therefore, any act that deliberately “desecrates” the body is considered utterly abhorrent.

Of course, we are aware that there are many Christians and respected Church leaders who have embraced these new practices. Unfortunately, in biblical orthodoxy, individual believers or leaders, no matter how highly placed, are not the standard.

The word of God remains the final authority on all matters of faith and practice. We are aware, for example, of highly placed individuals and leaders who have not only embraced homosexuality, but are practicing it. That does not sanctify such practices or legitimise them.

At the centre of the current popularisation of such practices as cremation, or the more recent acquamation, is an apparent concern for the environment. Both are touted as being environmentally friendly alternative to ornate caskets and concrete tombs. Acquamation is argued to be even superior to cremation which emits greenhouse gases.

Well, whereas environmental concerns are legitimate, and I am personally in support, we must be wary of any movement that overly elevates any practice.