Ken Okoth and his wife, Monica.

On July 26 Ken Okoth, the Kibra Member of Parliament, died of colorectal cancer at the age of 41. He asked that his body be cremated which was done. As the Standard newspaper headlined on August 5 said, this “Burning of bodies has kicked up cultural, religious storm.” A Quaker pastor from Nairobi commented on his facebook page, “Cremation was for Hindus, Christians and Muslims never practiced this.” This led to 176 comments.

The usual custom in rural Kenya today is for the person to be buried in his/her own front yard. A person who dies in the city will usually be buried in the rural home he/she came from. The grave is not “sacred” as it is in an American cemetery because cows will eat the grass and children will play football (soccer) on it. It is only in the past 25 years or so, if the family so wishes, that placing a cement headstone on the grave of important people has been added to this tradition.

Recently other prominent Kenyans have been cremated. The most internationally known one was Nobel peace prize winner, Wangari Mathai who didn’t want a tree cut down to make her coffin.

Disclaimer: As an author I am supposed to indicate my biases. Both my father and mother were cremated and with a prayer I deposited their ashes in the Mississippi River at St. Louis where we used to frequently go for outings when I was a child.

In the following quotes, when necessary, I have edited them for spelling, grammar, and clarity.

“Remind them Pastor, it’s Disgusting and Demonic kabisa (completely),” said one response to the pastor’s post. Another said, “We don’t believe in cremation, that’s demonic, pastor.”

Another comment said, “Cremation is for the heathen, hellbent and destined to be consumed by flames of hellfire, serving their god, Molech.” Or more stridently, “Cremation is not biblical but a heathen practice. There is no way Zion [i.e., Christianity] and Babylon [i.e., the corrupt world] will share the same podium. And whatever is true for the natural is also true for the spiritual. Hell starts consuming people while still alive and how nature treats them is evidence enough of their destination. Trespass is a punishable sin just like witchcraft, idolatry, fornication, etc. Trespass is being in God’s will but doing in your own ways or following the way of the world or the devil.”

Another quote says, “This practice should not be embraced in Luhya land. It is going to cause a lot of misery and bring down the huge catering industry we have invested in.” When people are cremated, the funeral is small and private. There is no large all-day funeral with up to thousands attending for an important person. Politicians come and make campaign speeches, small business people come to sell various food items, pictures, decorations, and the catering company that supplies the tents, chairs, and food. A burial of an elderly person in Lumakanda will cost $2,000 or more, much of it contributed by the community.

“I have some neighbors who own a quarter an acre piece of land. All the five sons have built houses on the land. In the last ten years, they have lost about eight members all buried on this tiny piece. Grandsons are also maturing and will need land to build houses. We must change our views on cemetery burials and cremation. Otherwise we are running out of land.” Another comment supports this view, “Hindus practice cremation widely because their population is too big and land is small to accommodate all bodies underground. It will come a time we Africans will also be forced to do so.”

Ken Okoth himself illustrates how Kenya is and will need to change. He was born in Kibera slum and never lived in his ancestors’ home area of Kisumu. He had no house or land in the rural area. In the city people cannot bury people in the front yard. Langata Cemetery, the only cemetery in Nairobi, is already filled to capacity. The attempt to buy land for a second cemetery led to a major land scam as the field had rocks right below the surface so that bodies could not be buried. Another person wrote, “In fact leave alone with this poor family. I don’t have any land at the moment and since I don’t know if I will be living next minute, I wrote it down that when I die cremate me.”

Then some people responded that burial itself is not a traditional practice. “Even burial is not African, all foreign, because whites under Christianity came with burial. First we adapted it so the same should be with burning.” A quote from the newspaper confirms this, “In the past, the Meru community left the dead outside to be eaten by hyenas. Even the hyenas knew there was food once they heard the people wailing. It is only when the white man came that we started burying the dead.”

In response that cremation is non-Christian, some people pointed to 1st Samuel 31:11-13: 11 When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.

The second religious objection was that although some say Jesus himself was buried, he was not. He was put in a cave with a stone rolled in front of it. When Gladys and I visited Israel a few years ago, we saw an example of how people were put into caves with the stone to close its entrance. If Jesus had been buried as presently done in Kenya, the women who went to anoint his body would have had to have had to dig up the body.

There was also a certain amount of anti-Hindu commentary. “Cremation was for pagans. God warned us not to import any custom or behavior from other religions.
When we start doing what Hindus and other idol worshipers do, we are sinning.
What is the origin of cremation? Hinduism I think, they are the major ones who practice this. Hindus are idol worshipers. They use the ashes to do their rituals and even smear them on their foreheads. Hey, Christians, keep off from paganism.” Or “Cremation is not Christian. Why would we emulate another religion culture? Not unless we want to begin worshiping their gods.”

Some people feel that cremation is a current custom brought in by Westerners to undermine African culture. This is partly a response to the fact that Ken Okoth’s wife was of European origin.

Yet there were a number of supporting comments. “The end result is the same -disposal of the remains of the departed. However, I think we should respect the wishes of the mourning parents and/or relatives.” “It’s a change that has come and you either change willingly or you are changed by the change. The soul left a long time when you breathed you last. It’s in heaven or hell. What remains is just nothing so whether you burn it or bury it the end result is disposal.”

“This is a really timely topic to bring up. Personally I believe the body and soul are different. Disposal of the body has various rituals in relation to tribe, religion, personal belief, and circumstances.” “All those practices are traditional. The soul is the one the Bible cares about. Cremation remains to be my best option.”

Here is what I consider the best comment: “I would rather DONATE my organs for the benefit of humanity. If my eyes can help a soul, I would be glad. If I can help someone, let them have it. Thereafter Dispose my body. If you want to burn it so be it. If you want to bury it so be it. What’s the point of allowing my body to go to Waste while it can be beneficial to a living soul. So much concerned how I can help humanity. I stand with SPIRITUALITY AND NOT RELIGION.”

What do you think, Kenyans, Africans, Americans, Europeans, and others?

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David Zarembka
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