The silent economics of death and remembrance

Man has through the ages romanticised death through poetry - passing away, going west, promotion to glory and celebrating life. Such flowery language probably reduces our fear of death.

The silent truth is that after a funeral, we go home sure of one thing: someday, they will also gather for our own final farewell.

There would be less fear of death if we knew exactly what happens thereafter.

But no civilisation - no matter how advanced - can fully explain what happens after death. For the religious, it is easier.

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Every religion - from traditional to modern - has an explanation of the afterlife.

For the scientists, it is the cessation of complex biological functions.

Trying to marry the two views has been a conundrum.

The mystery of death has not stopped us profiting from it.

From insurance to undertakers and lawyers, death is a big industry.

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Few study death and I’m sure after reading this article, you will keep wondering what’s wrong with me. A look at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data shows no sector called death.

It’s probably lumped together with health. We could argue the growth of funeral homes and hospitals is driven by death or the need to extend life.

Why else is euthanasia resisted? The latest venture in the death industry is selling memorial tombstones on the roadsides.

There is such a yard at Ruaka near the bypass and another one just as you get out of Nyeri town.

It is not clear why tombstones have become popular.

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Could it that we are too busy to remember the departed and prefer a permanent record?  Or is it just fashionable?

In the past, we remembered the departed through libations and invoking their names often.

One religious organisation remembers the departed in November.

In Kenya’s colonial period, the departed were buried in churchyards. This was an old tradition from Europe.

In one Anglican Church at Ol Kalou, the departed had their names inscribed in opening pages of a big Bible.

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Is that the origin of the book of life?  There is a cemetery next to the church with the names of the departed inscribed on the tombstones.

Another cemetery at Nyahururu AIC church has a cemetery where Afrikaans or Boers are buried.

John Barnes has chronicled all such old cemeteries and whoever is buried there!

A visit to Lang’ata suggests that the affluent have always had such well-written tombstones.

It’s probably “trickling down” to the commoners. As usual, the affluent lead in styles, mannerism, and cultural changes.

The tombstones are sold by the living to eke out a living from death.

One of the paradoxes of our times is that though death is the great equaliser with no respect for socio-economic classes, we still keep socio-economic classes beyond death.

More like ancient Egyptians who buried their kings with treasures.

Tombstones tell us a lot about our social economic class, even after death.

The language used on the epitaph, the size of the epitaph, the material it’s made of and its permanence. They tell us in silence if you were hustler or not.

Public cemeteries

One curious trend is that even the affluent are being interred in public cemeteries.

An attempt to start a private cemetery not far from Nairobi was met with demonstrations and the idea seems to have faded away.

The locals did not want “death” near them. Is the emerging popularity of public cemeteries an attempt to preserve the value of private land?

Selling land with graves is a tall order. In most countries, you can’t be buried in your own land, it’s in designated cemeteries. We could one day get there.

Surprisingly, there is still a belief that mzungus in the colonial era were buried with treasures.

That has led to desecration of their graves in search of gold and other treasures.

Economic divides

The desecrated grave of Major Robert Francis Carnegie at Ngobit on Nyahururu road is an example.

The failure to close economic divides among the living and extending it to death is one of the greatest failures of the human race.

Yet, it has been a great dream of philosophers, politicians, religious leaders, educators, and even individuals to close the inequality gap.

Communism was supposed to close this gap.

It failed and with the triumph of capitalism, the gap is getting wider. Political popularism from the US to Brazil is riding on this gap.

Next time you see tombstones on sale with their crosses, see beyond the price which starts from Sh7,000 at Ruaka.

Together with cemeteries, they are monuments to economic inequality across time and space.

You may not need econometrics and esoteric graphs popular with economists to understand inequality.

A walk through a cemetery or analysis of tombstone on sale might give you enough information to even write a PhD thesis.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics