Cremation is a controversial practice in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Cremation plan for late Kenyan politician stirs debate on faith and culture

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – Kenneth Matiba, a popular politician in Kenya who died last week, will be cremated this week — a plan that has set off a debate in this mostly Christian country, where many view the practice as contrary to their faith and African culture.

Kenneth Matiba. Courtesy photo via Twitter

His family announced Monday (April 23) that Matiba, a democracy activist and Anglican who was 85 when he died, would be cremated on Friday.

“It was his wish that when he dies, that he should be cremated,” his wife, Edith, said at a prayer service at their home in Nairobi.

Cremation of prominent people is very rare in Kenya. And the anticipated cremation of Matiba, who came in second in the 1992 presidential race, has ignited a heated debate on the topic, with some Christian leaders denouncing the practice.

“Jesus was buried after he died on the cross. All fathers of faith — from Abraham to Joseph — were also buried. I think burying the dead honorably is the path God wishes for his people,” Benjamin Mutungi, a Pentecostal pastor in Nairobi, told RNS.

“When we cremate we mock resurrection,” Mutungi said.

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This is not the first time that cremation of a famous Kenyan has stirred the nation.

In 2002, many were outraged when Anglican Archbishop Manasses Kuria cremated the body of his wife, Mary Nyambura. The primate’s remains were also cremated — despite strong opposition from church members — when he died in 2005.

Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai was also cremated when she died, in 2011.

But others in the church — and government — are speaking out in defense of cremation.

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“The (Anglican) church does not have difficulties with it and wants to grant people their wish,” said the Rev. Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest in central Kenya. “But I think the problem is in the culture and traditions. The people believe when their relatives die, they join their ancestors. When the body is burned, they fear the link is severed."

The Roman Catholic Church accepts cremation as an option, according to the Rev. Wilybard Lagho, the vicar general of the Mombasa Diocese.

“We only advise that the ashes are not scattered, as required by the church guidelines,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the land available for burial in Kenya shrinks, and the price of burial increases, the Nairobi City County has been encouraging residents to opt for cremation. Three years ago, the county increased the cost of burial space for adults from about $250 to $300. It reduced the cost of cremation from $130 to $90.

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  1. “When we cremate we mock resurrection,” said Benjamin Mutungi, a Pentecostal pastor in Nairobi, told RNS.

    God made the very atoms that exploded into being when He first created the reality in which space, matter, and time came to be. If He can take those particles and create worlds where life can form, if He can combine them into complex forms of life that is aware and can think and love … If He can do that He can also take ashes and reform them into the being that once was, so that He may raise them up again.

    Does any Christian really think if Jesus had been cremated that He could not have risen from death?

  2. Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai was also cremated when she died, in 2011.

    Maathai converted to Catholicism, and Catholicism allows cremation.

  3. Bury half his body and cremate the other half.

  4. ATF45,

    The Scriptures do not present any basic objection to the practice of cremation.

    Scriptures do show us, however, with certainty, the condition of the dead:

    They are not aware of anything, as if in a deep sleep, whether in a grave or cremated (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6, 10; John 11:11-14 regarding Lazarus), who is still dead).

    Those who are dead, even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who are still sleeping in death), are alive in God’s memory (Mark 12:26, 27), and will be resurrected back to life on earth (John 5:28, 29). God even has a name for ALL the stars (Psalm 147:4), which is very memorable!!

    If Jesus had been cremated, then God, or his Father, would have certainly brought him back to life, in the physical body that Jesus had before death (Acts 2:32).

  5. Since it was the deceased’s own instruction that he be cremated, the right of anybody else to object is precisely diddly-squat.

  6. Why would god need access to the remains of a buried corpse to do the hocus pocus resurrection thing? He should have the DNA and blueprints of every creature that ever lived stored in his memory. I’m sure he can work with scattered ashes from a cremation.

  7. Cremation has both its up side and its down side. The up side is when land gets scarcer and scarcer by the day with the rapid and uncontrollable growth of human population. Soon there will not even be an inch to bury the dead. In India, an over-populated country Muslims, Christians and others who practice the burying ritual are simply digging the graves of the previously dead and burying over their bones. The down side is if cremation is done in an electric furnace, it is acceptable. However, if cremation is done on a pyre using scarce wood as in India, then the cremation is doing great disservice to the environment. It should be left to the grieving relatives to decide the mode of cremation or if the dead person’s wishes to be cremated then his wishes should be respected. Why does the Bible say “From ashes to ashes and dust to dust”. Maybe both ways are acceptable to God. Once we’re dead it is like as though we weren’t even born. In fact, ashes of the dead could be used to fertilize the forests and the fields. We come from the bosom of Mother Earth and return to her bosom. Has anyone in the millions of years of the history returned from the dead and said that cremation is wrong?

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