Virus commands that we let go our burial traditions

Wednesday May 13 2020

The resources and knowledge to continue with some core cultural practices among Kenyan communities, are no longer available or viable in these times of a pandemic. This is a great opportunity for culture change. One of these practices we can relook is the long expensive mourning period and extravagant funeral processions and ceremonies.

Like all cultural practices there is a logic or reason behind where and how communities bury their dead. When a culture loses its core cultural practices, it is in danger of not surviving another generation. That is one of the reasons that indigenous peoples who maintain most of their core traditions since time immemorial are protected by the United Nations and are more and more being included in discussions on globalisation.

In Kenya one such community is the Miji Kenda of the coast whose Kaya traditions are well enshrined as an integral part of the forests, including their burial rites. The rest of the Kenyan communities have borrowed heavily from the religions they practice and integrated these into their burial traditions, while others such as Muslims are guided by Sharia laws.


Kenyan’s have an unusual obsession with dead bodies, which is not part of our traditional practices, but I suspect has been borrowed and modified from various religious practices. It is not uncommon to hear that loved ones must be brought ‘home’ to rest with the forefathers. In reality, many communities did not bury their dead and the idea of identification and demarcation of ‘our’ lands is a colonial concept that has taken on a life of its own in terms of greed and vulgarity.

For example, when communities moved from place to place, they left their dead to rejoin the universe, without much of memorials. They were often left to rot away in designated forests. Land was in plenty and there was no idea of individual ownership, borrowed from the tenets of capitalism.

Culture is dynamic and with the scarcity of land, this is no longer a viable possibility. However, the most dominant idea on burials currently is borrowed from our colonisers who also brought a Middle Eastern religion with them. The idea that a dead person will rise from the dead, combined with our love for dance and music has made Kenyan funerals affairs that defy both culture and religion.

The loss occasioned by death is difficult to deal with, but our obsession with bodies has become an emotional encumbrance. So we haul bodies across the world for burial, even of people who have not set foot in their ancestral homes for decades.

Yes! It is a terrible obsession that must be broken. Our neighbours are held in hospitals over unpaid bills of little amounts, but we will not contribute to help them. Yet, no amount is too much to bring a body home from any of the continents, many times of people we do not know and have never interacted with.


Hospitals also use this emotional encumbrance to punish families whose loved ones have left huge bills in an exploitive medical care system, where money seems to be above all else. In these days of a pandemic, we shall have no choice, but to abandon our dead in lands far away, as bodies everywhere are interred at the first given opportunity. International travel is also limited to cargo and a cadaver does not meet the threshold for essential exports and imports.

When we lose people locally, there is a requirement that we bury within 48 hours, in these times of inter-county lockdowns slapped on some counties. This has denied many people their ritualistic meetings. As if that is not culturally traumatic enough, the requirement is that not more than fifteen people attend the funeral. Some families have five times this number of immediate members, never mind other relatives and friends.

It is a painful time to be bereaved and many people have tried to reinvent 15 anyway they can. We are living through a time of coerced cultural change. We must forget the drama, feasting, dancing and days of mourning and adopt the more realistic new normal. This might also help us value our relatives a bit more when they are alive.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa