Death is something most of us don’t like to think about, it’s a morbid thought that can’t possibly bring any good. Yet, as Africans we all know the rules that come with the territory of passing on, things have to be done a certain way because, for us, death is not the end. It is the beginning of one’s spiritual journey to our ancestors to join them.
These are strong pillars of our African identity, so strong they affect our passing.
According to our African descent, being able to join one’s ancestors is a crucial part of life and to attain this, proper burial customs have to be followed.
The recent death of Ugandan music icon, Geoffrey Oryema brought not only sadness to his family and friends but brought about a controversy regarding his burial. Oryema’s funeral evolved into a legal battle between his wife and his Family. Oryema’s wife wished to honour his request to be cremated while his family insisted on burying the late musician.
The real issue here is less about a proper burial but what Oryema wanted which was expressed in his will.
The Musician wanted some of his ashes scattered at Oryema’s ancestral family home and some scattered in his town of birth. This did not sit well with the Acholi Paramount Chief of the Nwoya district; he wrote a letter to the Oryema family warning that human cremation is an abomination in Acholi custom and would not be tolerated.
Based on most African cultures and religions, cremation is not the favourite way to go. The journey to our Ancestors requires one’s body to be fully intact and not burnt to a crisp. This very common understanding is also why one finds organ donation in Africa very unpopular.
Afterall, how can one make their spiritual journey with missing parts of themselves?
The Zulu people are an example of a cultural group that fully believes this. In addition, some cultures go as far as adding the deceased’s personal belongings in their graves so they can be used in their next life.
Optional means of being laid to rest exist for practical reasons too.
At present, burial land is running out in many an African country. Public cemeteries are at full capacity. Whether we like it or not Africa, at some point we are going to have to opt for cremation not out of choice but necessity!
Here in Zimbabwe cremation is popular with our white population though we face challenges as such was reported last week, there was no gas to fire the only crematorium in Harare. Despite this option being more economical, the fact still remains the majority of the country like its fellow African counterparts would rather bury their deceased.
If one states in their Will they wish to be cremated, is this wish going to be respected or will culture take precedent?
Oryema wished to be cremated and scattered over places like his ancestral family home which shows he still very much had an attachment to his roots. Can’t a common ground be reached in situations such as these where one’s wishes might clash with culture yet still pay homage to that very culture?!
Without disputing the beauty of our customs and beliefs, what happens when the deceased wants things done a different way, just as in Oryema’s case?
Not all have the spouse in Oryema’s situation who was willing to fight for his wishes. How would the situation have gone if it was not so? How will Africans handle it when the day comes and cremation is a must rather than choice, will we lose our minds or be able to progress and adapt to the reality pending?
Would your family respect your wishes?
As morbid as it may sound…it might be a conversation about death worth having whilst you were very alive.