To burn or not to burn;  Cremation vs burial

Wed, 15 Feb 2017 09:21:45 +0000


By Kanyanta E. Kauma


Lately the nation has been consumed by the argument for or against cremation in Zambia. Following the proposal of mass cremation as a tool for curbing the shortage of grave space in the country, the nation was left astir.

Mortality is a topic that easily raises more questions than answers, does the soul depart from the body at death, can the dead see and hear us?  With no idea what lies on the other side it is understandable to wonder about this. Discussing death is still largely considered taboo in many parts of the continent. It is believed that to speak of it is to invite it into one’s midst.

Cremation is defined as the reduction of a dead body by burning, vaporization and oxidization. This can be done in various ways I.e. in a crematorium or outdoor furnace. Simply put it is the process of exposing a corpse to smoldering flames to reduce it to bones and ash. Burial has been defined as the action of or practice of burying a dead body. Traditionally, the continent has practiced burial as a way of putting away the deceased. In African culture the rites of birth and death comprise of specific rituals and ceremonies in order to successfully lay the deceased to rest. Special rituals must be held in order to usher the body and spirit of the deceased successfully from the earthly to spiritual realm.

When death occurs in African society, an intricate process must be followed. Depending on the clan in question each tribe will be subject to specific laid down rules i.e. carrying the casket around a fire while singing and calling on clan spirits. In Uganda it is common among the Buganda people for graves to be prepared in advance for each individual. Preservation of the corpse is also considered fundamental, carpenters go the extent of fashioning outlandish caskets for extravagant funeral processions. This is done not only to acknowledge death as a fate that awaits all, but as a way to prepare the mind and body for the journey ahead. With many countries on the continent adopting Christianity, it would be expected that the use of funeral rituals would subside. However despite this, traditional burial rites still hold true in many parts of the continent today. In the bible the dead are regarded as being in a state of slumber, unconscious of anything in the physical world. Less emphasis is placed on the act of inhuming the body but is concerned more with the metaphysical aspects of spirit and soul .Traditionally , the body is not disregarded or considered in  a state of slumber but rather is viewed as a critical vessel to transport the deceased to the afterlife to meet with ancestors and other dear departed ones. Burning the body therefore would hinder passage to the other side and thus displease the spirit of the diseased and cause misfortune to family members.

The question on whether to bury or burn lies not in the act itself, but in the mindset behind the process. In many African communities it is believed that the soul simply transcends into the spiritual realm to meet with long passed ancestors and clan spirits. At funerals women will be heard calling out to the deceased, crying out to them as though they were in their midst. When the person passes away they do not cease to exist but rather move to an alternate plane in which the body plays a great part. Usually, African funerals will comprise of a lengthy procession comprising of singing, beer drinking, incantations and odes to the dead and ancestral spirits. The body is a significant part of the process as it is believed that the physical body will manifest in the other realm as it was put to rest. The physical body serves as the last physical remainder of the deceased. To see the body lying in rest reassures the families of the possibility of resurrection in another life. The argument stems mainly from conflicting religious and cultural beliefs. The nature of interment in traditional African culture also depends heavily on the age and status of the deceased. Older and Respectable individuals typically command greater company and finances at their funerals. Chiefs and headmen would be buried with much greater dignity than their subjects and slaves.

The western world as well, adopts various approaches to the issue of death. Ideas on death are more freely discussed, with introduction modern wills and insurance covers people are growing more open to discussing the topic of death and consequences thereafter. Families may opt to have their loved ones cremated or alternatively, individuals themselves would request their preferred method of interment in their will.  The bereaved family of a sailor for instance may request for the body to be burned up and ashes poured into the sea, to unite the remains of the passing soul with the element of their loved ones livelihood. In America, mothers that lost young children have been known to bury the child’s ashes with a flower seed, in a special vase to allow the lost life to blossom in a new form. Other families reserve special jars and urns in their homes and cupboards containing the ashes of their deceased. Wealthy families have been known to buy select portions of land as mass family graves. Cremation has existed since early times and practiced for different reasons, some believe it can be done as a method to prevent use of the corpse in black magic and voodoo. In folklore, maleficent wizards and sorcerers have been known to go to graveyards and use charms to reanimate dead bodies.  Ancient legends tell tales of dead bodies being brought to brief periods of life, unbeknownst to the family and used to carry out dark deeds at the command of witches and wizards. In order to prevent this dark puppetry, people were known to cremate their dead.

Cremation has also been used as a way to protect the corpse from mishandling. In many parts of the world grave-burgling has been a growing problem.  After a body had been laid to rest, thieves would visit tombs and graves, opening caskets and stealing any precious belongings that may have been buried along with the deceased. In instances where the deceased was a prominent figure such as a chief, king or leader graves would usually be filled with gold, jewelry and other valuable ornaments that may have been added to earn the deceased rank and status in the afterlife. With the costly price of dignified caskets, the trend of stealing caskets also increased the number of grave desecrations.  In order to prevent their loved ones remains from the prowling arms of casket thieves, families have opted to have the remains of their deceased burned.  Cremation ensured families would not bear the humiliation of having the remains of their loved ones desecrated.  Financial capability is also a factor in choice of burial, to many, the cost of holding a traditional funeral may just well be above their means. Bereaved families in this day and age must cover the cost of a casket, burial ground, transportation, food etc. and with the typical African funeral procession spanning three days or more the cost increases massively. In order to hold a dignified burial families would have to part with large sums of money to add salt to their wound.

In traditional African society the method of burial depends a lot on the way the individual passed away. The death of an elderly member of the community for instance was viewed as a noble death in many parts of the continent. Death was considered for the old, whose lives where lived and purposes fulfilled. These funerals would be attended by large groups of people, family and well-wishers with songs and beer to celebrate the life lived and the passing of the soul to the afterlife as an ancestral spirit to watch over the clan. The death of a criminal, witch or suicide however was largely viewed as a bad death usually caused by evil spirits. Corpses of such people would not be accorded a decent burial but rather would be thrown away into “evil forests” to be consumed by wild animals.  Burial was the norm in traditional African culture, cremated souls stood little to no chance to make it to the afterlife as they lacked a vessel to transport them save for instances when the body posed health risks  to the community instances such as when diseases broke out  or epidemics spread.

For many on the continent burial offers the bereaved families a permanent resting place to mourn the deceased  flowers, gravestones , statues and other decorative elements provide a way of preserving the memory of their loved ones that ashes may not offer.  Many people simply cannot fathom the sight of their loved one’s remains being consumed by flames. Fire is one of the most destructive elements on the planet. In the bible God purged the earth a first time with water during Noah’s great flood, but in revelations he promises to purge the earth of evil once and for all with fire. To subject the body of a deceased loved one to this harsh element is still considered extreme and unthinkable, many feel they are burning away the soul, memories and entire legacy of the deceased. In almost every culture around the world, it is a staple to give up the remains of the deceased up to any of the four elements; earth (soil) wind, (ashes released into the air) water, or fire. But one thing remains clear; each particular religion and region favors one element over the other. In Africa however, the issue of cremation largely remains taboo as majority choose to hold true to the burial customs of their ancestors and tribe.


The author is a journalist, pursuing her Bachelors in Journalism and Mass communication at Cavendish University. For comments and contributions email ;


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