By Tanya Cothran, Executive Director, Spirit in Action

Biography: Barbara Anne Neighbors Deal (age 70) from Crescent City, California, was on the Board of Directors of Spirit in Action International* (SIA) (click for webpage). She was so excited to be able to visit SIA partners in Uganda and Kenya and participate in the meetings and evaluation process. In 1980-1995, Barbara and her late husband Bob worked for Camps Farthest Out International, an international, interdenominational Christian foundation. During that time they lived and worked in 27 countries, including Uganda and Kenya. It was in the course of that work that she met and worked with Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge of Eldoret, Kenya, who she was visiting when she became sick. Barbara was also a choir director at several Methodist churches, a literary agent working with authors who wrote about body-mind-spirit topics, a farmer, and a caregiver. She was an only child and had no children. 

 *Spirit in Action provides micro-grants to support individuals, families, and grassroots organizations in Africa to start small businesses and community programs. Visionary Women’s Center in nearby Turbo received a grant from them as reported here.

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Introduction by David Zarembka: My August 16 Report from Kenya on Cremation in Kenya received a good number of comments. This includes this description by Tanya Cothran of the July cremation of Barbara Deal in Eldoret, Kenya. I thought that this would be an excellent follow-up to the initial posting and I asked Tanya if I could share her story together with some appropriate pictures. She agreed. Here is the story.

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Tanya Cothran is the Executive Director of Spirit in Action and has worked with grassroots organizations in eastern Africa for twelve years. Barbara Deal worked with Tanya’s grandparents through Camps Farthest Out International and so Tanya and Barbara have known each other many years. They started working together when Barbara joined the SIA Advisory Board in 2010 and most recently they traveled for three weeks together in Uganda and Kenya. Tanya is the author of Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping to Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems and lives in Toronto, Canada.

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Barbara with Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge, her friends of 35+ years.

I was working in Eldoret this June and Barbara Deal, my American colleague traveling with me, became sick and passed away on July 4th. Before she died she requested of Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge, her friends and our hosts, to be cremated and have her ashes buried on their family’s land.

Illula Village is in the farmland area near Eldoret, in the western part of Kenya. Illula is where Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge live and it is the site of the Ukweli Training Centre, Illula Children’s Home and Samro School. Barbara and I held the SIA Small Business Fund conference there in early June and she stayed on to have more time to visit with her friends of over thirty-five years, the Teimuges. Just as she went into her final surgery in early July she asked Samuel that, if she died, she be cremated and buried on their land.

At the time we didn’t realize how rare cremation was in Kenya, particularly in Eldoret. Asking around we learned that the Hindu Temple is the only place in Eldoret to cremate and so we met with the man who performs that service. None of us knew what the process of cremation would be like, how much ash there would be, how long it would take, etc. We were in an evangelical Christian community (though I myself am Unitarian) and there was some fear from the Kenyans if the cremation was okay for Christians. None of them knew anyone who had been cremated before. The pastors in the community quoted Bible verses that talked about ashes and about the soul being separate from the body to reassure people. We also agreed that we would sing Christian hymns and prayers before and during the cremation to call on the presence of God. The Kenyans took a lot of pictures of the cremation in process. I hope that overall the process of seeing this ritual for an American (who are allowed to do different cultural things) will encourage more people to choose cremation if they want, without stigma or shaming from the community. 

Earlier in the week we were really trusting that we would get the paperwork we needed from the US Embassy and could arrange the cremation to all happen before Naomi, a SIA partner from Uganda, and I left. It all worked out – Praise God!

Barbara Deal’s grand celebration and send off in Eldoret was a beautiful day, filled with love, laughter, encouragement, healthy tears, hugs, and peace. Right after breakfast twenty-four friends of Barbara and of the Teimuges drove down to the Hindu Temple and Crematorium. The site was beautiful, right next to a river and amid trees. I think that Barbara would have been thrilled with the interfaith cremation!

The cremation was a traditional Hindu cremation, held outside and using wood for the fire. We were all a bit nervous, not knowing what the cremation process would be exactly and so it was a good opportunity for curiosity and being in the moment. The man overseeing the cremation asked us to have Barbara wrapped in a cloth inside the coffin. We used white sheets around her. We had a chance to file past and have a final glance at Barbara in the coffin. After we gave our final farewell to her earthly form, six friends carried the coffin over to the open air space, where there was a metal frame with wood underneath. The men then lifted Barbara, wrapped completely in the sheets, and set her on top of the metal frame, which also had a layer of wood. The Hindu men then built what I’ll call a log cabin around her body, so that she was surrounded by firewood. They spread some form of accelerant paste on the wood and on the wood pile underneath the metal frame. They broke down the coffin with a mallet and then added that wood to the pile too. Then, using a bucket of charcoal coals, they started the fire. There was incense burning and it smelled nice, with no odd burning smells.

We were singing, some people were crying, and some people were taking photos, since this was something they had never seen before. We prayed, and sang songs: In the Sweet By and By, It is well with my soul, Amazing Grace, and several Swahili songs, including Barbara’s favorite Twende Zote (Come and go with me to my Father’s House). Naomi Ayot and Dennis Brown, SIA partners and friends, stayed next to me and held me close as I cried. The ash flew up and spiraled prettily in the sky. As someone who loves bonfires, it seems like an amazing way to have my body be prepared for burial!

We stayed for close to an hour while the fire burned and then we said a final prayer and left. The fire would continue to burn for another 4-5 hours.

We hosted lunch for the 75+ people – neighbors, Ukweli/Samro/Children’s Home staff, family of the Teimuges, SIA partners from Kenya and Uganda – all who had come to love Barbara dearly in the past weeks.

Samuel Teimuge and Dennis Kiprop carrying Barbara’s ashes in an urn.

After lunch, eight of us went back down to crematorium, bringing the clay pot that we had bought from a local nursery the day before. When we came back, there was just a pile of ashes underneath the metal frame. It was a little shocking to see the transformation from a few hours before. There were still some coals smoking, and the body ash was likely mixed with some wood ash. The pile of ash would probably just about fill a wine barrel. We took just a portion in the clay pot, the ashes being cool enough that we could carry the pot easily. The rest of the ashes were spread on the cremation site grounds, next to the river, underneath the tall trees there.

We arrived back at the training centre at 4:45pm and we gathered everyone to come to the training hall, which was set up with flowers and a photo of Barbara. The room has a mural, “Be still and know that I am GOD.” This was the first funeral to be held in the hall. Children from the school and children’s home had been praying for Barbara and wanted to attend the service. Working with local tradition we buried her in the afternoon – morning represents the beginning/youth of life and the evening is like moving towards the end of life.


Barbara’s final resting place with flowers and tree.

There was thunder rumbling in the distance. It had not rained since the day Barbara died, even though we are in the Eldoret rainy season. Around 6:30pm, just before sunset, we made a procession to the place that had been chosen next to Mama and Baba Kigan’s house. We sang Amazing Grace. The rain got heavier. Children crowded around the hole with curiosity while people lowered the pot into it. We planted a tree – hardwood, to honor a strong woman – in the same hole. I and the other caregivers planted purple flowers around the tree. We sang more and the pastor led us in a prayer. By this time it was pouring, a sure sign according to Ugandan tradition, that the Lord had received Barbara with joy.

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