Burial traditions die hard in Kenya despite modern life pressures

A mourner carrying bells
A mourner carrying bells and clubs performs a dirge in honour of the dead. Most Kenyan communities follow their traditional funeral rites to the letter. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Contrary to the narrative popularised at the beginning of colonialism by missionaries and settlers that Africans were primitive and practised pagan worship, research has shown that most African societies believed in a supreme being, who was the author of our existence. The dead were also believed to be nearer to the supreme being than the living.

In African societies, the concept of life is intricately connected to death and, in fact, they are not mutually exclusive but exist in a continuum. According to many traditions, death is merely a rite of passage to another plane of existence, a transition which does not change or alter the life or temperament of a person but only causes a change in its form. Individuals who have died become ancestors and continue to “live” in the community and to commune with their families. The predominant purpose of death was for one to become an ancestor.

Much like in Christianity, African societies believed in an afterlife. Rewards and punishments were believed to occur in the afterlife automatically, depending on the individual’s performance in the terrestrial world. The rites of death were all important and helped to strengthen community and psychological bonds.

If proper burial rights were not performed it was believed that the deceased may become a wandering ghost, unable to exist in a stable manner after their death, becoming a menace to those they had left behind. “Proper” burial rites were seen to be more of a “guarantee of protection” for the living more than to secure a safe passage for the dying. It was believed that the dead had some ardent power over those who were living.

In Kenya, the Luo have one of the most elaborate system of burial covering altogether about 13 steps, including the famous “tero buru.” The long and twirling legal wrangling in 1986 between S. M. Otieno’s family members, with his widow Wambui Otieno of Kikuyu origin on one side, and his brothers, Joash Ochieng Ougo and Omolo Siranga, on the other, underpinned the importance of funeral rites amongst the Luo community and brought to the fore the issue of compatibility between Kenya’s customary laws and the inherited colonial legal system. To this day, the Luo follow their traditional rites to the letter.


The Luhya community follow a similar pattern of funeral rites though not as elaborate. The funeral itself is viewed as an intrinsic custom aimed at pleasing the ancestral spirits. Key holidays such as Lisaabo, which is a remembrance of dead ancestors and the spiritual realm are also observed.

The Kikuyu were much less elaborate about funeral rites. Under Kikuyu customary law it was a great taboo for a member of the tribe to touch a corpse. In his biography, Francis Hall writes about having to bury victims of disease himself because Kikuyu customs did not allow them to touch dead bodies.

As with the Maasai, the sickly and the aged Kikuyu were not left to die in their homes but were removed and taken to remote locations like forests or hillsides and left to be eaten by wild animals. However, up until the arrival of the colonists, the Kikuyu also practised exposure, a custom of placing the dying individual at a specified distance from the settlement putting a leash on one hand which would be tugged from time to time to determine whether the person was dead or alive. If the person failed to respond when the leash was tugged it would be presumed that he was dead.

After death those who had sired children were accorded funeral rites which culminated in the “gukura” ceremony elevating the spirit to a higher status. The body was then wrapped in a sleeping position and taken to a burial ground known as a “kibirira” where it would be facing the homestead. These burials were an expensive affair as the rites had to be paid for in goats and therefore were reserved for those with means.

These traditional rites were demonised by the missionaries and the authorities early in the 20th century. As the Kikuyu became more educated they adopted a more Western style of burial which was also seen as a sign of development and social status. When more of them moved into urban centres such as Nairobi, they obviously could no longer practice traditional burial rites as they were forbidden by law.

Cemeteries were segregated along racial lines and the only place of interment for Africans was at Kariokor which was far from adequate given the population of Africans. The 150 acre Langata Cemetery was opened in 1958 and up to the mid-1960s Africans were not permitted to be buried there.

The population of Nairobi has multiplied many times over since then and now stands in excess of four million residents. Kariokor Cemetery has been “grabbed” and Langata Cemetery has been declared full since 1996. The cost of burying the dead upcountry has become prohibitive and there is also growing pressure on land.

A trend is now developing where more Africans are turning to cremation of the dead. Among the prominent Kenyans who have been cremated is the Anglican Archbishop Manasseh Kuria whose cremation stoked debate within the church in 2005. Three years earlier his wife Mary Nyambura Kuria was cremated much to the surprise of her family. Others who have been cremated include Peter Okondo, Joshua Okuthe, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and more recently, Kenneth Matiba.

Cremation is a fast, clean, cost-efficient method of disposal of the dead which perhaps is the way forward in the future. Unfortunately, the Langata Crematorium is in a state of disrepair and the only alternative is the well-run Hindu Crematorium at Kariokor.

With growing demand for cremation of the dead perhaps we need to invest in more facilities to provide the service.