Since 1902

Where cemeteries lie idle as the dead squeeze for space

A decision by Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya two weeks ago to acquire parcels of land for a public cemetery has shone the spotlight on the state of the country’s graveyards, even as cases of Covid-19 soar and fears of more deaths become a reality every day.

But as Oparanya was looking for more space, it has emerged that in Mt Kenya, public cemeteries are idle and hardly used as residents stick to long-held tradition of taking remains of loved ones home for burial.

Despite the land sizes shrinking over the years due to subdivision and population growth, residents of Mt Kenya are yet to embrace the culture of burying their loved ones in public graveyards.

As a result, most of the devolved units in Central region are living in abundance of space, with most graveyard desolate and not in use.

The situation is the same in Meru, where the culture favours burying the dead in their homes, according to the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders.

Njuri Ncheke Secretary-General Josephat Murangiri said every clan in the area traditionally had disposal grounds for the dead around their home referred to as Kiambirira.

“Indeed even in the Meru rural areas where land adjudication took place between the 1958 and 1961, no allocations were made for public cemeteries,” said Murangiri.

He said among the Meru burial of a relative outside their homestead is taboo and taken as disowning them, which could lead to the family being haunted by the spirits of the dead.

“And anyway, why would a family patriarch or matriarch be buried outside their farms which they would have tended all their days?” poses Murangiri. Nyeri County Chairman of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, David Muthoga, says culturally Kikuyus believed in life after death and that ancestors watched over the living.

“It is important to care for the dead by respecting their remains, which is why they are buried on their property,” Muthoga says.

The burial site is considered sacred and is prohibited for cultivation and grazing of animals.

“It is considered abandonment of sorts to bury a relative away from their homes, therefore it is difficult for people to embrace public cemeteries,” he adds.

Rufus Gicheha, a member of Kiama kia Ma in Lari, Kiambu County, says family members should always be buried in the ancestral land unless they were landless.

Befitting send-off

The deeply ingrained Kikuyu traditions require the dead get a befitting send-off, including burial at their ancestral land.

“Burial in a public cemetery, especially if ancestral land is available, depicts totally cutting off the memories and ties to the deceased,” says Gicheha.

He says funerals, like weddings and initiation ceremonies, remain important rites of passage in a person’s life.

“When a family is bereaved, people will travel long distances to attend the funeral and lend a helping hand to the bereaved family. You can’t do all this then end up burying the deceased in a public cemetery,” says Gicheha.

While Murangiri is confident Kenya will defeat the coronavirus before it can necessitate mass burials, he says anything happening during the Covid-19 period should be understood as a national disaster.

Meru County Lands and Physical Planning Executive Jeremiah Lenya says in Tigania where he comes from, there was a communal ground for disposal of the dead called Kathaka Kaai, which translates to condemned bush.

“That culture has been abandoned and many of our people use family land to bury their kin. However, as a county government we are proposing a change,” says Lenya. Lenya says they are factoring in more space for public cemeteries in the ongoing spatial planning in at least six proposed urban areas.

The existing public cemeteries comprise five acres in Meru town, including 3.5 acres in the Christians’ cemetery near Meru Level Five Hospital mortuary and a 1.5-acre Muslim cemetery near Gakoromone market.

Another unused half-acre cemetery is in Maua town while Timau Township has recently been allocated a 3.8-acre cemetery – 2.5 acres for Christians and 1.3 acres for Muslims.

“Traditionally Merus did not have a way for preparing for death and allocating land for cemetery would have fallen in that category, but things change progressively,” says Lenya.

Murang’a County has probably the highest concentration of public burial sites allocated during the land adjudication in the 1950s.

Each village has at least a one-acre cemetery plot, but officials say some of these have irregularly changed hands.

An inventory at the Murang’a County government shows that more than 200 parcels of land had been earmarked for public cemeteries.

Some of these plots now host high-rise buildings and reclaiming them might be a tough call.

Sticking to traditions

Murang’a County Health and Sanitation Executive Joseph Mbai recommends reclaiming of the lost grounds, saying the original idea was visionary.

Land and Housing Executive Sarah Masaki says the detailed inventory of public land inherited from the defunct local authorities means grabbers had nowhere to hide.

But Benjamin Gachagua, a member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, sees no need for public cemeteries as the tradition demands one be buried at home.

“Most of those buried in public cemeteries had left behind wishes which the family had to respect,” says Gachagua.

Nyeri County has several public cemeteries, including three of the largest in Nyeri town.

Charges for adult graves are between Sh1,800 and Sh2,600 while burying a child costs between Sh1,100 and Sh1,700.

Despite shrinking land sizes, locals remain wary of public cemeteries.

Muthoga says even cremation was unheard of in the community, even though it has been done to some affluent people such as the late Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai and politician Kenneth Matiba.

“As land scarcity bites, people will have no choice but to use the public cemeteries, but it may take a long time,” he says.

According to the Nyeri County Public Health Sanitation department, out of the 27 public cemeteries in the county, Nyeri Baden Powell Public Cemetery is the most popular and is now at 90 per cent usage.

In Mathira East, the only public cemetery, which was located in Karatina, was closed after it was declared full years ago. Cemeteries in villages such as Ihua, Kihatha, Gitero Gatitu, Riamukurwe, and Kirichu are rarely used.

Pastor John Thuo of Grace Assembly Church, Kiambu, says Kikuyus, just like all other Africans, have embedded in their social fabric the issue of social support and human solidarity – community and kinship, this being one of the reasons they shun public cemeteries.

“For most Kikuyus, funerals combine traditional African and Christian elements. Where the deceased is buried is very key,” says Thuo.