A friend of mine asked, “What is this world coming to? This is really bizarre! I thought the practice of stealing coffins had died a natural death???”. The question was in reaction to a story that appeared in the local media about grave robbers who had been scuttled by the police in their attempt to rob the grave of the late Mutula Kilonzo. He passed away very recently, and therefore his grave was still fresh, the soil or cement may not have settled or hardened enough! Talk about striking the iron while it is still hot. But this was a cold grave! Stories like these are what reincarnate the idea of boogeymen in your wardrobe, closet or under the bed when you’re still a kid…and even up to when we grow up.
Grave digging & robbing, is not a new or novel phenomenon. According to Beta News (3/12/2012) over 100 graves were dug up in the West African country of Benin, looted by grave robbers seeking body parts for use in magic rituals. And according to a Reuters news story on the same grave looting story, “The incident is the most serious case of grave-robbing in the West African state, the world capital of voodoo where most of the country’s 9 million residents practice a benign form of the official religion.” The story clarifies that the grave robbers in this case were looking for body parts to use in “religious” rites. It just boiled down to witchcraft if you ask me!
Muti hunting was featured in the 2009 South African science-fiction film “District 9,” in which the hero’s body parts were sought after by a local warlord who believed that the limbs would give him magical powers. The Muti affair in South Africa assumes graver proportions when if they cannot rob a grave, then murders will suffice in order to supply the body parts. Closer to home in East Africa the Muti practice was and still is happening with the abduction of Albinos, whose unusual body pigment lends their parts a higher price and potency in the macabre world of divination, devil worship and whatever else these guys do to knock themselves out!
But this is not a practice limited to Africa. Africa is in good company and probably playing catch up with the bad side of maendeleo! In Europe it is historically true where in Britain, by the early 1700’s, theft from graveyards was common in London, England, and grave robbers (or “resurrection men,” as they were known) were making a profit digging up bodies and selling them to anatomists and doctors. Among the most infamous of these criminals were Irish grave robbers and murderers Brendan Burke and William Hare. And how about archaeological excavators some who have crossed the line and no longer do it to further knowledge in their field but to find fame and fortune?
The common denominator in all these ghoulish practices is the desire for power and money. But in the case of what happened in Ukambani, I am tempted to just water it down to plain good old robbers who while probably standing in the wings and watching the whole burial ceremony, were busy calculating how much the clothes, accessories that dressed the body and the mahogany looking coffin can fetch on the local underworld market!
Expensive coffins, suits and jewelry that we bury our rich in are a natural pull for the hungry poor who can’t understand how some can have so much and others nothing at all. Not that it’s the dire poor who always steal but there are those daredevils who aspire to wealth and riches by any means necessary…including desecrating graves and disrespecting the family of the deceased! It’s a catch 22…a splashy send-off in the glare of those who had nothing to eat the night before and risking a visit from them coming to get what the dead have and they do not!
What wood was used on this casket! And where was it made? Another friend mused. I have been part of funeral committees and it always amazes me how we go to great lengths to procure coffins whose wood and timber would make very expensive tables and other furniture or even better serve as a “gently” used, second hand coffin for the next customer. The coffins have more glitter added with golden handles fitted and a finish in the wood that is so fine. The budget for the coffin sometimes eats up a big chunk of the budgeted funeral donations, rivaled only by the cost of the food for the send off feast, even when the family of the deceased could have done with the money post burial!
Then, as if that is not enough for you the poor deceased and the family, someone comes in after the last mourner has left to unearth you, undress you literally, take your ride (coffin) to glory-land and dump you back in the cold soil or cemented grave! And all they wanted is the sometimes faux gold and anything else that they can palm off for whatever money all that paraphernalia can fetch. The late Whispers nailed it when he always referred to mitumba clothes as “marehemu George”, in reference to the same having been imported from the land of King George, England! In this case, the clothes came off the cadaver of a real marehemu!
I watched the funeral of the last Pope who died in office and was humbled at the coffin which can only be described as a pinewood box. Simple indeed! I guess our problem as human beings is how to separate the needs of the dead when they are really gone, from the living and whose needs are truly greater and very real. In going through the mourning phases of denial, grief etc, we still continue to think that the dead are aware of what we are doing…buying them a new suit, a watch, shoes, shirt…don’t forget the underwear (clean too!), and making a public display of out-wailing each other (the will is yet to be read!) and also affording them the best and really expensive ride to their final resting place, from halfway houses with names reminiscent of the Inca.
I guess we call it “resting” because we believe in the doctrine of the apocalyptic rising…and so they, the dead, are not really dead! So when we arrive on the other shore will our mum be waiting to check see that your nails are cut short and that your undies are clean? I hardly think so!
Much of what we do when a loved one passes on is done from a very emotional plane and sometimes trying to inject reason into such a highly charged situation could land you in hot soup. You might even be said to be silently jollificating and that is why you are suggesting a cheaper coffin for the dear departed. My friend Nina put it this way, “Sadly, it doesn’t really matter how you inter the dead, the end result is the same….we end up 6 feet under where we quickly transform into dust. Sadly too, life moves on and the only people who truly feel the loss are usually a handful of people consisting of the departed one’s nearest and dearest.”
All this having been said, it seems to make sense that we should make certain important decisions while we are still alive and not wait for mourners to do this for us. Those decisions are ones like what kind of funeral we would wish to have including the method of final interment. I know it is still taboo for some to write a will or even suggest to oneself that you will die one day. They say that you are tempting fate! My Ann here in the US had what I found to be an unusual funeral which she planed while alive and in a surreal way, directed and conducted the same after she had passed on. She planned the service, the scriptures and she actually read and recorded the order of service from beginning to end! The music too! And she paid for everything in advance! In the foregoing circumstances, cremation as an option, does begin to look and sound like a not so bad idea.
I would opt for cremation instead of the ritual of church and graveside burials at a huge expense….and being far away from home, it is the right choice to make seeing how people turn you into cargo at great cost, and wait for you to arrive at the airport so that they can view and wail over you afresh! Really? Cremation is easy on the remaining family and I also like the fact that people do not have a mound to get tethered to and keep making pilgrims to every year and feel guilty when they don’t.
Graves are also a way for us to perpetuate ourselves in the mind of the living and also provide guilt trips for if they forget! Cremation is also hygienic and saves on land as a resource. I have been to homes where graves have overtaken the area set aside for farming…It is like they farm graves and the bits of maize and maharagwe plants are the weeds!
According to an article published in The Star “The Intricacies of Cremation” by J. Chigiti of the law firm Chigiti & Chigiti and a graduate of Pune University India, a country where cremation is the first choice interment method, “In recent years, cremation has become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional in-ground burial for many different reasons. Many people perceive cremation as being the more environmentally sound choice, some prefer the efficiency of cremation, and undoubtedly, the lower cost is appealing. Cremation is an option for the final disposition of a deceased person. The late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai is the latest entry in the known list of cremations.” The article further notes that we still remain firmly entrenched in out traditional burial rituals but with time, the changing social and especially economic dynamics will box us into seeing cremation as an okay alternative.
I am all for respecting the remains of the dead but we must at times stop and listen to the voice of reason that niggles at the back of our heads that reminds us that, this immediate burial fanfare will soon end and then we will be left to face the grim future of life without the departed and the looming rent! For those who can afford it, their conscience should tell them to not parade it to those who are so poor and needy it hurts! I have seen extravagantly wealthy people opt for small and very private funerals.
The legacy of a simple life, that the dead Pope who was buried in a pinewood box, left to us, is what we enjoin ourselves in. The same goes for our hero, Professor Wangari Maathai, dead and cremated, and who I remeber each time I am driving by Uhuru Park. And that idea of what legacy we leave behind should also suffice for the wealthy dead…not the pomp and pageantry of a body going back to dust, all dressed up and laid out in a coffin that came at the price of what counts like a small county budget!
©njeriOsaak is a trained journalist, a Public Relations professional and a College Speech Communication teacher, currently based in the United States.