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In 2008, five years before his death, former New York Mayor Ed Koch paid $20,000 (Sh2 million) to a cemetery to secure a place for his burial. Funerals, just like weddings, can be expensive as you want them to be. A report in the Journal of Human Development in 2013 found that 63 per cent of poor families in the Kenyan society blamed funerals for their poverty.

 In 2019, the late University of Nairobi lecturer Ken Ouko said the African culture is to blame for the chock hold death has on ordinary Kenyans, leaving them gasping for breath financially. He added that poverty and funerals are intertwined. “If you are poor, death is always a disease away, and if you, as a breadwinner dies, burying you will drive your widow and children deeper into poverty. And it is all because, in many cultures, the dead have to be ‘buried well’. In many cultures, the dead being buried in cemeteries is seen as throwing them away, so they are interred in the villages, next to the graves of their relatives. So that their spirit settle and doesn’t come back to haunt the living.”

Ouko pointed out incidences where even if someone dies abroad, harambees are held to fly their remains back to Kenya. “The sanctity of death and funerals has diminished. It is no longer a mourning process, add to the fact that politicians have turned also funerals into platforms to hurl insults and trade blows and drive their agenda. So it is easier to get contributions and hold a big flashy funeral, than help someone who is sick and dull. Funerals are flashier and interesting. Sickness is dull and boring. So it’s easy to raise funds for a funeral than a sick person.”

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A person’s status also determines how he or she will be buried. In December 2017, the government approved the establishment of Kenya’s first private cemetery on 69 acres in Nyandarua County, targeting the fabulously rich. The property known as Gates of Pearl, located next to Kinale Forest, will have 35,000 places where the rich can rest in peace at a cost of Sh130,000 per ‘resting place’. The rich cemetery will have concrete seats where the bereaved will be seating when they come to visit their dead, a petrol station, chapel and an eatery.

Muslim funerals

A Muslim funeral is a simple affair that does not require much. According to Sheikh Rishard Rajab Ramadhan of Masjid Jibran Mtwapa, funeral expenses are charged on the wealth the deceased left. “These expenses include the cost of the shroud and the few planks of wood required to keep the soil away from the chamber where the dead is laid to rest within the grave,” he says. Feeding the mourners and their transport is not a funeral expense that the wealth of the deceased has to bear as the money became his heir’s inheritance the minute he died. 

According to Sheikh Rishard who also doubles up as the deputy principal at Sheikh Khalifa, the deceased family should not be allowed to cook for seven days. The cooking is often left to neighbours. Adding: “Mourners are not allowed to heap extra costs on the bereaved family, requiring food and other expenses.” Islam strongly discourages the preservation of bodies in funeral homes. It teaches that a grave is the first stage of the hereafter. “Why should the righteous be delayed from enjoying the fruits of their afterlife by an unnecessary process? The wicked should also not be delayed for their date with destiny, so we bury as soon as possible,” says the Sheikh.

The washing of the body in Islam is done by close relatives who have to strip the body and after covering the privates to uphold the dignity of the deceased, they wash with warm water and scented soap. “This keeps any unappealing features on the deceased body to be kept in the family as discussion of any negative aspect of the body is prohibited,” he says.

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The dead is then taken to the mosque for a special prayer which has neither prostration nor bowing. We just praise the name of Allah in four takbirs and pray for the dearly departed,” he says. After which the dead is carried upon the shoulders of the faithful and taken to the grave for burial. “Participants in this last journey aren’t allowed to talk and can either reflect on their own impending end or pray for the deceased,” says the Sheikh.

The grave, which should be about the height of an average man has a special groove dug at the bottom to keep the body lying on its right-hand side facing Makka. Again his immediate family members are the ones to lay the body in its final position before those attending fill the grave with soil,” says the Sheikh.

“And this treatment is uniform with all Muslims who have died receiving the same treatment. Be they rich or poor, famous and even monarchs, all are treated the same way,” says Sheikh Rishard. “We do not even later construct fancy mausoleums and all graves including that one of the late King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia looks the same as everybody else’s,” he said.