Friday, late morning, I am at the Hindu Crematorium in Kariokor, right at the fingertips of Gikomba Market. My curiosity has brought me here, to this crematorium, to this place where every day is a ceremony for the dead to leave their Earth bodies behind.
It is the end of one journey, perhaps the beginning of another: it depends on whether you subscribe to religion or spirituality.
Me? I’m still not sure what I subscribe to. What I’m sure of is that I will always respond to my instincts to explore this wilderness of my curiosity.
How far would you let your curiousity take you?
I meet a man at the crematorium called Robert. Robert is the heart and soul of this place, the pen and paper, the machinery that keeps its cogs churning. Hell, he is the fuel of his own machinery.
After the evident hesitation of asking about who I really am and what I really want from him, where I’m from, Robert indulges my curiosity and shows me around the place, he even points to where he lives, behind the crematorium, ‘the house there with the green roof.’
I don’t know what to make of that.
We also talk. A lot. About life and death and things, mostly death. Talking to Robert makes me feel… reassured. And comforted.
It’s like sipping from a bowl of warm pumpkin soup.
Robert has been cremating bodies here for over 25 years. He has had the honour of administering the final rites of hundreds of folk, including the who’s who of this town. I press him to drop the names and he tells me: Wangari Maathai, Bob Collymore, Sir Charles Njonjo, Binyavanga Wainana….
Robert is unmoved by the seemingly unsettling nature of it all– this is his job, he says, this is what he does. He cremates.
Earlier that morning, he had put a man’s remains – and his casket – into the crematorium. He has another one to run this afternoon, at 2p.m.
He has a mug of tea while he waits.
The crematorium in this new wing is a stainless steel electric furnace that hums with efficiency. It’s sleek and modern, expressionless. It runs on electricity, there is a generator behind it that snarls like a vicious pet.
The entire ensemble smells of nothing but the fragility of our immortality. It’s a fragility Robert has come to embrace, anticipate even, he cannot outrun his fate any more than he can have a cup of tea while the crematorium runs. Not even with those weathered Nike’s on his feet.
Not too far from these modern crematoriums are the traditional crematoriums. The cremations here are fueled by firewood, sawdust and the spark from a flame.
It costs 50,000 shillings for non-Hindus to be cremated in Kariokor. It doesn’t matter if you choose the electric furnace or the wood fire, the cost is the same.
The cost is lower for Hindus.
I am here at the crematorium because of a story I’m writing, about the finances of funerals in Kenya. This is my final stop – I’ve already visited a handful of funeral homes in Nairobi, collected pamphlets, crunched the numbers from funeral budgets.
The finances of funerals are a galvanising revelation to me. I didn’t know, the cost of a standard Christian funeral goes into the hundreds of thousands. It costs much more if you bury your loved one upcountry than if you cremate them here in Nairobi.
What fascinates me the most is this: the biggest cost in a funeral budget has nothing to do with the dearly departed. The biggest cost is to put food and drink into the stomachs of those who have come to see their departed off.
A standard Kenyan funeral does not just honour the life of the departed – it quenches the thirst and hunger of the living attending the ceremony.
Perhaps if we didn’t have to feed people at funerals, then the cost would be more manageable for the family.
But then again, we are Kenyans after all, we don’t invite people into our homes then send them off with an emptier stomach than they came with. We must all drink and dine together.
Spending my Friday morning with Robert at the Hindu Crematorium has forced me to confront my preferences: when I die, do I want my remains buried or cremated?
What about you dear reader, buried or cremated?
I asked this question to my online community on Instagram. (Follow me, by the way, my handle is @_craftit.)
I conducted an informal poll on my stories and collected some numbers.
These are the results:
I went on to ask them why they chose the option they chose.
A majority of those who want to be cremated pointed out that it will save their family all the trouble of a burial; time, money, the logistics of travel upcountry. A handful of others say they didn’t want all the fuss of burials.
‘We have a weird attachment to the dead’
Others talked about the outcome of cemeteries, the what-nexts of graveyards. One person said, ‘Land becomes unsellable when you bury someone there. You would be hard-pressed to sell land your family is buried on. Neither would you buy land from someone whose family you know is buried there.’
That’s a valid point: Cemeteries and graveyards have a lot of sentimental value but little market value.
Those who chose to be buried talked about the familiarity of their traditions and culture, ‘It’s just the way things have always been done in my family.’
Someone else said, ‘I don’t buy this storo of ‘we’ll be given new bodies in heaven’. I’ll go with mine, just in case.’
And yet another said, ‘Before I was sure about cremation but now I realise that final rites are more about helping the loved ones grieve.’
More valid points right there.
From those who were not sure, one said, ‘I’m not attached to whatever will be done. I will be dead. My body which houses my sould will be of no use to me anymore.’
As your resident expert on money, what I can tell you is that, make sure whatever you choose is captured in a written will and is communicated to your family.
To read more about the finances of funerals in Kenya, writing wills and other stories about the life of your money, buy my books from our Market here.
An edited version of this story first ran in the Saturday Nation on October 9, 2022. It ran under my ‘Culture’ column.4