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A day at the Kariakor Hindu Crematorium

COUNTIES
By Timothy Otieno | April 24th 2021

Hindu Shamshan Bhumi is the Hindu name for the Hindu crematorium at Kariakor, Nairobi.

To those who have not grown up in cultures where cremation is the principal way of internment, there could be some cringing; maybe from fear of what goes on in the kiln.

Then you visit a place where bodies are burnt to ashes, and despite the knowledge that they are lifeless, you imagine the pain, literally as the fire engulfs the kiln, and heat sneaks out of it, and what follows are chills.

The Saturday afternoon was hot, and Shamshan Bhumi was busy. It is one of the 18 crematoriums in the country.  Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic the place has been busy.

“We used to cremate about three bodies a day, now we can even do up to six,” says Robert Mwania.

He has been the foreman at the crematorium for more than 23 years. The irony of it is that he started working there when his life was blossoming to new beginnings as a newlywed, while his job description is based life’s end.

The Kariakor Hindu Crematorium is increasingly attracting non-Hindus. [Standard]

Back then, he says, most of the land that now forms part of the crematorium was bush, shrubs, and trees. He however bought the dream of Harish Patel to transform and have the place renovated into a proper crematorium.

Harish Patel is the director and coordinator at the crematorium. “This was primarily a Hindu crematorium but over time, more and more Africans are drawn to this method of internment,” Harish says.

“I think many (Africans) are realizing that the burial route takes time and is often very expensive. Cremation costs less and the sendoff is rather quick.”

It will cost Sh40,000 to cremate your loved one using the electric kiln, but just 18,000 if you use the traditional firewood.

When we visited the place, one body that had arrived two hours before us was being cremated using the traditional method. The firewood crackled in a crescendo as the smoke billowed from an iron sheet structure located at the centre of the crematorium. We spot no family member around

“They came in the morning. After a brief funeral service, they allowed us to begin cremation and we told them to come for the ashes tomorrow,” Harish tells us.

Kenya, a largely Christian nation, is yet to warm up to the idea of cremation as a final rite of passage to the afterlife. Most of those who opt for cremation are either compelled by cultural or religious affiliations.

Yet, over the last decade, more and more people have chosen cremation over traditional burial for their final send-off. It came as no surprise to many when renowned Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai chose to be cremated upon her death on September 25, 2011.

Prof Wangari Maathai was cremated at the Kariakor. [Standard]

She had lived most of her adult life advocating the conservation of the environment and has largely been credited for preserving Nairobi’s Uhuru Park grounds located at a prime spot in the city when the government had planned to put up a skyscraper there.

On October 8, 2011, following her death wish, Maathai was cremated at the same spot we now stood watching yet another cremation.

Maathai’s cremation was however less controversial than that of Manasses Kuria in 2005. Manasses was the former Head of the Anglican Church in Kenya. His decision to be cremated at the time sparked major debate in Kenya as many, especially members of the church, felt the decision as unbiblical.

"It is not good. There is nowhere in the Bible we find people's bodies being cremated. Even Jesus himself was buried," Dorcas Kinyua, a Pentecostalist was then quoted by The Standard. But Archbishop Manasses Kuria was no stranger to controversy.

Just three years earlier he had hurriedly cremated his wife, Mary Nyambura Kuria, at the Langata Crematorium after she died at the Nairobi Hospital.

But Kuria and Maathai, would only be the pioneers of high profile personalities who went against the grain to have their remains burnt to ashes as a final sendoff. Those who followed the trend include former sports administrator Joshua Okuthe and his wife Ruth Okuthe who were both separately cremated at the Kariakor crematorium in 2009.

Despite opposition from his own family members, the late sports administrator’s mock funeral was conducted at his ancestral home with an empty coffin in Tamu, Muhoroni Constituency.

Archbishop Manasses Kuria. [Courtesy]

Former CEO of East Africa’s largest and most profitable company Safaricom, Bob Collymore was cremated in July 2019, former opposition leader and renowned multi-party advocate Kenneth Matiba was also cremated in April 2018 upon his wishes as well former TV star Lorna Irungu. The former chairperson of the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation, the late Jane Kiano was also cremated.

But Harish Patel will tell you, the less prominent cremations have been more. The crematorium he supervises was started before Kenya got independence. His grandfather began the work, handed it down to his father and now Patel oversees nearly 50 cremations in a month. “I find nothing wrong with cremation. My Hindu culture, as well as my religion, allow it,” Harish tells us.  

The siren of an ambulance quickly cuts short our interview. “The body that was to be brought here at noon has arrived,” he prims as he shoots up to his feet. “I have work to do!”

The body, in a white body bag, is lowered from the back of the ambulance and placed on a slab outside the cremation chamber. We are informed that the 62-year-old man died of Covid-19 the day before.

Safaricom CEO and jazz lover Bob Collymore was also cremated. [Standard]

The body is accompanied by a handful of family members who begin singing Hindu final rite of passage hymns. Robert, the foreman, who at this point is busy sweeping up small pieces of timber underneath what will serve as a furnace for the fire, looks unperturbed. He does not maintain any eye contact with the bereaved family. This is purely another day at the office for him. I presume.

Within 10 minutes of arrival, the body is placed on top of a platform supported by five plunks of wood. This will be the final resting place for a man who, to me, looks more like in a deep slumber than actually dead.

Usually, the officials at any crematorium offer a family member a chance to light the fire. A young man, probably the man’s son, has the honour. This family chose the traditional method of cremation. “We usually use a special type of fuel to accelerate the flames,” Robert had told us one hour earlier.

Despite its increasing popularity among Africans, cremation remains largely a preserve for the Hindus. This mode of burial is considered a very important ritual for them. They believe cremation is the only way a physical body can be transitioned to the afterlife for it to be reborn. Without cremation, it is said, the soul will be disturbed and will forever haunt the living relatives of the deceased.

According to the 2019 National Population Census, there were 60,287 Hindus in Kenya, who constitute about 0.13 per cent of the total population in the country. It is estimated that 60 per cent of the crematoria in Kenya are either owned or run by Hindu with the rest managed by Muslims.

As The Standard Digital team is about to leave the Kariakor crematorium that afternoon, Harish Patel shows them the next day’s diary.

Seven bodies are set to be cremated.  Five of them are Africans. It’s a new normal for the lean team at the crematorium who wait anxiously for the next day’s very busy schedule.

Hindu Shamshan Bhumi is the Hindu name for the Hindu crematorium at Kariakor, Nairobi.

Former politician and democracy activist Kenneth Matiba. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

To those who have not grown up in cultures where cremation is the principal way of internment, there could be some cringing; maybe from fear of what goes on in the kiln.

Then you visit a place where bodies are burnt to ashes, and despite the knowledge that they are lifeless, you imagine the pain, literally as the fire engulfs the kiln, and heat sneaks out of it, and what follows are chills.

The Saturday afternoon was hot, and Shamshan Bhumi was busy. It is one of the 18 crematoriums in the country.  Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic the place has been busy.

“We used to cremate about three bodies a day, now we can even do up to six,” says Robert Mwania.

He has been the foreman at the crematorium for more than 23 years. The irony of it is that he started working there when his life was blossoming to new beginnings as a newlywed, while his job description is based on life’s end.

Back then, he says, most of the land that now forms part of the crematorium was bush, shrubs, and trees. He however bought the dream of Harish Patel to transform and have the place renovated into a proper crematorium.

Harish Patel is the director and coordinator at the crematorium. “This was primarily a Hindu crematorium but over time, more and more Africans are drawn to this method of internment,” Harish says.

“I think many (Africans) are realizing that the burial route takes time and is often very expensive. Cremation costs less and the sendoff is rather quick.”

It will cost Sh40,000 to cremate your loved one using the electric kiln, but just 18,000 if you use the traditional firewood.

The Hindu Shamsan Bhumi Crematoria Center at Kariakor in Nairobi. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]

When we visited the place, one body that had arrived two hours before us was being cremated using the traditional method. The firewood crackled in a crescendo as the smoke billowed from an iron sheet structure located at the centre of the crematorium. We spot no family member around.

“They came in the morning. After a brief funeral service, they allowed us to begin cremation and we told them to come for the ashes tomorrow,” Harish tells us.

Kenya, a largely Christian nation, is yet to warm up to the idea of cremation as a final rite of passage to the afterlife. Most of those who opt for cremation are either compelled by cultural or religious affiliations.

Yet, over the last decade, more and more people have chosen cremation over traditional burial for their final send-off. It came as no surprise to many when renowned Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai chose to be cremated upon her death on September 25, 2011.

She had lived most of her adult life advocating the conservation of the environment and has largely been credited for preserving Nairobi’s Uhuru Park grounds located at a prime spot in the city when the government had planned to put up a skyscraper there.

On October 8, 2011, following her death wish, Maathai was cremated at the same spot we now stood watching yet another cremation.

Ashes after cremation. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Maathai’s cremation was however less controversial than that of Manasses Kuria in 2005. Manasses was the former Head of the Anglican Church in Kenya. His decision to be cremated at the time sparked major debate in Kenya as many, especially members of the church, felt the decision as unbiblical.

"It is not good. There is nowhere in the Bible we find people's bodies being cremated. Even Jesus himself was buried," Dorcas Kinyua, a Pentecostalist was then quoted by The Standard. But Archbishop Manasses Kuria was no stranger to controversy.

Just three years earlier he had hurriedly cremated his wife, Mary Nyambura Kuria, at the Langata Crematorium after she died at the Nairobi Hospital.

But Kuria and Maathai would only be the pioneers of high profile personalities who went against the grain to have their remains burnt to ashes as a final sendoff. Those who followed the trend include former sports administrator Joshua Okuthe and his wife Ruth Okuthe who were both separately cremated at the Kariakor crematorium in 2009.

Despite opposition from his own family members, the late sports administrator’s mock funeral was conducted at his ancestral home with an empty coffin in Tamu, Muhoroni Constituency.

Former CEO of East Africa’s largest and most profitable company Safaricom, Bob Collymore was cremated in July 2019, former opposition leader and renowned multi-party advocate Kenneth Matiba was also cremated in April 2018 upon his wishes as well former TV star Lorna Irungu. The former chairperson of the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation, Jane Kiano, was also cremated.

Hearse ferrying Bob Collymore's body exiting Lee Funeral Home on June 2, 2019. [David Gichuru, Standard]

But Harish Patel will tell you, the less prominent cremations have been more. The crematorium he supervises was started before Kenya got independence. His grandfather began the work, handed it down to his father and now Patel oversees nearly 50 cremations in a month. “I find nothing wrong with cremation. My Hindu culture, as well as my religion, allow it,” Harish tells us.  

The siren of an ambulance quickly cuts short our interview. “The body that was to be brought here at noon has arrived,” he prims as he shoots up to his feet. “I have work to do!”

The body, in a white body bag, is lowered from the back of the ambulance and placed on a slab outside the cremation chamber. We are informed that the 62-year-old man died of Covid-19 the day before.

The body is accompanied by a handful of family members who begin singing Hindu final rite of passage hymns. Robert, the foreman, who at this point is busy sweeping up small pieces of timber underneath what will serve as a furnace for the fire, looks unperturbed. He does not maintain any eye contact with the bereaved family. This is purely another day at the office for him. I presume.

Within 10 minutes of arrival, the body is placed on top of a platform supported by five plunks of wood. This will be the final resting place for a man who, to me, looks more like in a deep slumber than actually dead.

Kariakor Hindu Crematorium coordinator Harish Patel. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Usually, the officials at any crematorium offer a family member a chance to light the fire. A young man, probably the man’s son, has the honour. This family chose the traditional method of cremation. “We usually use a special type of fuel to accelerate the flames,” Robert had told us one hour earlier.

Despite its increasing popularity among Africans, cremation remains largely a preserve for the Hindus. This mode of burial is considered a very important ritual for them. They believe cremation is the only way a physical body can be transitioned to the afterlife for it to be reborn. Without cremation, it is said, the soul will be disturbed and will forever haunt the living relatives of the deceased.

According to the 2019 National Population Census, there were 60,287 Hindus in Kenya, who constitute about 0.13 per cent of the total population in the country. It is estimated that 60 per cent of the crematoria in Kenya are either owned or run by Hindu with the rest managed by Muslims.

As The Standard Digital team is about to leave the Kariakor crematorium that afternoon, Harish Patel shows them the next day’s diary.

Seven bodies are set to be cremated.  Five of them are Africans. It’s a new normal for the lean team at the crematorium who wait anxiously for the next day’s very busy schedule.

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