When David Wanjohi, Nairobi County’s senior funeral superintendent, supervises the cremation of Kenneth Matiba today, some of the politician’s ardent followers across the country will be dejected.
In the past few days, residents of his home county of Murang’a has been urging the family to reconsider its stand on his cremation to no avail.
Matiba’s remains will literally turn into ashes within four hours.
Given Matiba’s stature, they had expected an elaborate State funeral akin to the one accorded his fellow second liberation compatriot Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1994.
Unknown to them, however, Matiba had made his wish known to the family close to 25 years ago, saying he did not want endless fundraisers to pay for his burial expenses.
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Matiba joins a growing list of prominent Kenyans who leave firm instructions that their remains be cremated.
These include a former head of the Anglican Church, Manasses Kuria, and his wife Mary Nyambura, a former Cabinet minister in the Moi era, Peter Okondo, and Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai.
According to Mr Wanjohi, cremation at the Lang’ata Crematorium usually involves subjecting the body to intense heat, reducing it to bone fragments. From a fuel tank on the roof of the crematorium, the body is sprayed with diesel and ignited. The wooden coffin further aids the process.
A smaller machine then crushes the remains. Relatives have the option of collecting the ashes, either storing them in an urn or disposing of them in any other way they deem necessary.
“We handle about 12 cremations a month. In the past, only whites would cremate their loved ones here, but now Africans are embracing cremation. Still, majority are still sceptical about burning a body and would rather take the long and expensive journey to their ancestral homes,” said Wanjohi.
According to Wanjohi, many people who have gone to Lang’ata cemetery during the past one week have been passing by the crematorium to see ‘that weird place’ where Matiba will be cremated.
Wanjohi, who has said he wants to be cremated, said Matiba’s choice would encourage more Kenyans to choose the process over the rigorous burial process.
Owing to religious and cultural beliefs, most Kenyans said cremation is akin to ‘throwing away’ a person, a cruel practice difficult to fathom, especially when there was no problem with a burial site. This is how Matiba’s followers felt.
“I don’t see the need to cremate Matiba. We should have given him all the respect he deserves by burying him in a grave that can be visited by future generations here at his rural home,” said a resident of Murang’a in an interview with a local TV station.
But proponents of cremation said the country had to face modern realities and change with the times.
When Dan Musyoki lost his mother four years ago, his father and other siblings had no choice but to honour her wish to be cremated. In fact, they met as a family and decided that cremation would be the way to go for any member who died. The problem was with the extended family members and friends.
“To the extended family, what we did was akin to the way a person burns garbage. Even our well-meaning Christian friends were of a similar opinion. However, cremation has helped us in healing as the grieving period was much shorter. With a burial, you still have the grave outside the house as a constant reminder of the loss,” he says.
To theologians, to bury or to cremate is purely a personal or family issue.
According to the head of the Anglican Church in Kenya, Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit, the Bible did not specify a particular procedure for disposing of the dead. He said a number of African communities did not bury their dead and that the burial customs we us are borrowed from other parts of the world.
“In Palestine they used to bury dead people. The custom then went to Rome, then England before coming to Africa. The Kikuyu and Maasai never used to bury their dead. Maasai used to leave a dead body outside the homestead for lions or hyenas to devour. They could even slaughter a goat and leave it outside to attract wild animals,” he said.
Bishop Mark Kariuki, the chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, said low acceptance of cremation as a final rite emanates from our culture that is resistant to change.
“We do not like things we do not know. We all grew up witnessing burials, not cremations. On the other hand, I have not come across a Bible passage that condemns cremation. To bury or cremate is purely a personal or family affair,” he said.
Would the man of the cloth consider cremation?
“I don’t want to think about death right now. I need to live a bit more, you know,” he said in jest.
Political and social commentator Barrack Muluka said Kenyans must wake up to the reality that we are living in a dynamic, ever-changing world.
Cremation, he said, was one of the things currently in their initial social stages. Accepting it, he said, required that Kenyans change their social and cultural behaviour, including fear of being cursed or bewitched.
Though the sight of graves dotting the landscape appalled him, Muluka said many Africans believed in spirits of the dead symbolised by a visible grave.
“There is a creepy feeling when you get into a home and the first thing you see are rows of graves even before you enter the house. On the other hand, cremation brings an element of shock, denial, and utter rejection. The African believes that the body will undergo pain during cremation.”
There are those who argue that with rising population and little space for the living, let alone the dead, people must adopt modern methods of disposing of the dead.
Benjamin Kibiku, the founder of Montezuma and Monalisa Funeral Services, said for a cash-strapped economy, cremation was the most cost-effective way of disposing of a dead body.
In some instances, cremation costs 40 to 50 per cent less than traditional burials since it removes stress associated with lengthy burial processes, including transportation.
He said Kenyans were wasting far too much land on graveyards at the expense of other development projects.
“Graveyards take up too much land that can be used either for farming of real estate development. Look at Lang’ata (Cemetery), for example. It occupies one of the most prime locations in the city that borders Karen and could have been used to house the living. Instead, we have given it to the dead,” argued Kibiku.
However, despite his views, Kibiku is not keen on being cremated. He would rather be buried in the compound of one of his funeral homes as a “memorial to all those who will be coming to collect their dead loved ones.”