Death in Africa is not a subject that is treated lightly. Everything that is associated with death has serious connotations. For a largely conservative society, there is always a belief that even though a person has died, there is an after-life and they are not really dead. Hence, cremation is not favoured in many African societies. But with inevitable demographic changes, attitudes are gradually changing.
Burying is becoming expensive. In East Africa, particularly Kenya, the situation as regards burial space is forcing people to face the hard reality of breaking long-held taboos. Migration to the cities is perpetually on the rise, and space is simply running out. Yes, burying space is running out and the present generation is staring hard at the prospect of being landless. And proper burials are becoming costly. With such a situation, what other option is there except to go against what one has held on to for the better part of their lives, what other option except to go along with cremation?
This is the reality prevailing in Kenya. Space is just running out and people have to turn to other alternatives, the fact that they like such alternatives or not increasingly becoming immaterial, because that is what is there. Due to this, local authorities in Kenya have been strongly urging citizens to go along with cremation because of shortage of space at public cemeteries for example one in the neighborhood of Lang’ata. This situation, which is turning grave (pun intended) has led to bodies being piled on top of the other.
Hitan Majevda, Nairobi’s top health executive, spoke to the Associated Press stressing how dire the scenario is. "We don’t have space, so cremation for us is the only option". Faced with this, a change in attitudes is eminently evident in the country. This change in attitudes was manifested first because of the cremation of Kenneth Matiba, a former presidential candidate and once one of Kenya’s wealthiest men last month. People are no longer seeing cremation as the "extremely unacceptable" form of dealing with the death of a person.
It proves that this is the conversation which many African countries now need to start having. Because these problems are real and coming to each one of us. Some people in Kenya were surprised that Hitan Majevda expressly provided for the wish to be cremated. What we now need to do is put aside our religious and cultural beliefs aside for a moment and deal with the problem in pragmatic ways. These are some of the issues brought about by Africa's ever-ballooning problems where urban areas ultimately become squeezed because of the influx of migration to those areas. Nairobi’s All Saints Cathedral issued a statement calling the debate "more of a cultural and philosophical issue rather than a biblical one."
Wangari Maathai, the Nobel laureate, even chose cremation too. In the West, there has been a decline in the influence that religion has on society and cremation is not a problem there, the figures for cremation in the West are surpassing those of burials. In Africa, poverty and lack of space are the main reasons why authorities are pushing for cremation.
It costs about $130 to cremate an adult at the Lang’ata crematorium in Nairobi. In comparison, traditional funerals are big business across Africa with people expecting to be fed and entertained, often with alcohol, for several days leading to the burial. The Lang’ata crematorium is seeing a gradual rise in activity with at least one person now cremated weekly, said Maina Nderitu, an official there.
Most people in Kenya oppose cremation, often on cultural grounds, echoing feelings elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa where traditional beliefs are often respected even among those devoted to Christianity or Islam.
"Cremation is a good idea as long as the world is changing and there is less time and money," said Pius Ssetimba, a funeral planner with Kampala Funeral Directors. "People these days don’t have time to attend funerals and it’s expensive to maintain a graveyard."
It's now a matter of convincing the Africans to adopt such a stance. It may be hard for some, but it becoming a reality that many people will have to grapple with. The rallying call of the authorities will obviously sound something like, "look, cremation saves the land".