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Does cremation make economic sense?

By XN Iraki | August 11th 2019
By XN Iraki | August 11th 2019
A Commonwealth cemetery in Mombasa. How shall we remember the loved ones without graves as cremation becomes popular? [XN Iraki, Standard]

In whimpers, cremation has become the in-thing among the Kenyan elite. Why now? Is cremation a fad that will soon go away or is it here to stay?

The popularity of cremation is more perplexing considering it has been there for more than 100 years. The Indian community (Hindu) has always cremated their bodies. Does it show our reluctance to accept Eastern culture?

Even today, Chinese is taught in Kenya but not Hindi. More perplexing is that no one is mentioning the Indian influence in cremation, it’s seen as westernisation. It also seems you are more likely to be cremated if a service is held at one cathedral in the city.

Yet, a visit to western countries shows rows of cemeteries. Few prominent leaders from the West have made publicity out of cremation. In fact, the West brought us elaborate burial ceremonies, which seem to have dovetailed very well with our traditions.

Death in our traditional societies was feared and elaborate ceremonies were conducted to cleanse and protect the living. The mystery of death was pronounced by the existence of witchcraft and its derivatives. 

What has changed in the last 56 years to make us shift from burial to cremation? Or has Kenya started facing East on cultural matters, as we have done economically?

One, time has attenuated the role of religion particularly among the elite; there are even self-confessed atheists. The fading role of religion, never mind the rising number of churches, means that its ceremonies will start taking a back seat.

That includes christening, marriage and eventual death. The mushrooming churches are often among the general population, the elite attend the traditional churches, even in the rural areas. Most churches, new or old have become modern. Compare the sermons today and those of your childhood. Even taboo subjects such as women priesthood and LGBT are being discussed openly.

Two, death has slowly lost its sting, no longer feared. We understand the biological systems that underlie death better and its inevitability.

Three, the elite are busy, no time to mourn and perform elaborate burial ceremonies. Burials must give way to competing priorities.

Four, is legal. Once the body is disposed, it reduces the chances of legal disputes from obtaining DNA samples to cases. It looks odd to have a prolonged legal dispute over a “non-existing” person.

Five, cremation is becoming popular because it’s led by the elite. They lead in fashions, styles and often in the thought process. On the thought process, the elite in Kenya have not been at the forefront, few dons were born and brought up in a Karen or Runda, they are not seen as elites. Now you know why our intellectuals are not held in high esteem, less known than socialites.

Where do we go from here?

The rest of the population often follows the elite but with a lag because changes often involve money. Shall we see a proliferation of crematoriums in Kenya, the same way funeral homes picked up long after Lee Funeral Home had enjoyed its special status for so long? 

Will funeral homes start owning crematoriums too? Will owning a crematorium become a big business? We expect the cost of cremation to go up as demand rises then go down as more players enter into crematorium business to make money. At the shakeout stage, adverts like “crematorium on sale” will start appearing. 

Prisoner to old traditions

Elites apart, there are good economic reasons for cremation. We can save valuable land and let it keep its value. Who wants to buy land annotated with graves? There is no contradiction that the elite with large pieces of land are embracing cremation. They want to keep the value of the land they own.  

Others think we are destroying jobs. No mourners, no grave diggers, no flowers, no transport, no catering, no harambees. What used to take weeks now takes a few hours. A serious economist will argue that we shall create more jobs as that money and energy is focused elsewhere, more productively. 

The question of cremation shows how reluctant our society is to change. Remember how long it took us to embrace mutipartism? One could argue that the time taken to embrace cremation and its simplicity shows the big burden that our leaders bear in leading us. 

But cremation has a silver lining, it shows we can change our society and hopefully for the better. That our society is a prisoner to old traditions that should give way to modernity is not in dispute. From our homes to the workplace, from our hamlets to State House, lots of traditions need to give way to modernity.

Managing change in a society in transition is a complex issue. It can make or unmake it. Think of how women inclusion in succession is tearing families apart particularly in central Kenya. 

Yet as economics has shown, a change driven by creativity leads to innovation, new enterprises and economic growth. As the country grows older just like human beings, change becomes hard to institute even when positive. 

Let’s identify the positive changes needed in our society and carry them to a successful end. If we do not, other forces will bring changes and use it to their advantage. A good example; who brought dual citizenship and who is benefiting from it?

In Kenya, as in most countries, the elite bring change that only benefits them as the rest of the population watch from the periphery. Why else has inequality and class system persisted over the years? Finally, I shall not disclose if I want to be cremated, but it’s something to think about.

-The writer is associate professor at the University of Nairobi School of Business.

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