Burn or bury: Would you cremate your loved one?

By now we have already come to terms with human mortality but the final disposition of the deceased body has turned out to be a contested topic. With an area of 26,338 square kilometers and a population of close to 11 million, Rwanda’s space to inter bodies is limited.In 2005, a businessman of Indian descent introduced an option that would save on space and cost; cremation, where the body is burnt at a very high temperature leaving behind only ashes.
Graves at Rusororo cemetery. Net photo
Graves at Rusororo cemetery. Net photo

By now we have already come to terms with human mortality but the final disposition of the deceased body has turned out to be a contested topic. With an area of 26,338 square kilometers and a population of close to 11 million, Rwanda’s space to inter bodies is limited.

In 2005, a businessman of Indian descent introduced an option that would save on space and cost; cremation, where the body is burnt at a very high temperature leaving behind only ashes. 

Alongside his family, he built a cremation structure in Bugesera District. In recent years, cremation has become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional in-ground burial all over the world for different reasons. The practice is perceived as being the more environmentally-sound choice, some prefer the efficiency, and undoubtedly, the lower cost is appealing.  In November 2012, Parliament passed a law granting permission to those who wish to cremate their dead.

Rather than digging a six by six grave in the ground to lay to rest the body, cremation turns the bodies to ashes in about two hours at temperatures of about 700 degrees Celsius. In traditional crematoriums, (like the one in Bugesera) firewood (about a 100 kilogrammes) and ghee to maximise the temperature is used. At times cow dung is added to act as an anti-polluting agent. In about two hours, the body is reduced to ashes.

Modern crematoriums on the other hand are electric ovens with temperatures as high as 900 degrees Celsius to ensure complete combustion of the body.

In the crematorium in Bugesera, only five bodies have so far been cremated there, none of them are Rwandan. Though the option promises quick, efficient and considerably cheaper disposition of bodies, Rwandans have been hesitant to adapt to it.

Engineer Sayinzoga Nkongoli, a civil engineer and a real estate professional in Kigali, says that the practice is against the norms of Rwandan culture. “Cremation is a foreign practice and goes against locals’ beliefs; the reluctance to employ the method is understandable. We are also not short of land to bury departed ones; with proper space management, we can make use of the available land,” Nkongoli says.

The divide between those in support of the practice and those against it seems to be set at the divide between the young and old generations. The same divide between embracing change and sticking to traditions and culture.

We should have embraced this ages ago – Faith Abayizera

23-year-old Faith Abayizera, a third year student at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), says cremation should have been embraced a long time ago. She says that the attachment that most people have with the departed is emotional but it shouldn’t stop people from embracing new ideals.

“Cremation would save space used up for cemeteries or burial grounds. The cemetery in Rusororo can be put to better commercial use since it is fairly flat. Cremation is also cheaper; it would reduce the cost incurred as the body lies in the mortuary and other burial costs. At times the cost of securing a place at the cemetery is as high as Rwf 700,000. That money can be used for other useful projects,” Abayizera says.

Securing a place at Rusororo Cemetery takes you back Rwf 700,000 for first class, Rwf 450,000 for second class and Rwf 150,000 for regular.  According to Abayizera, traditions and culture should only be held onto if they are beneficial to the society and not out of fear of the unknown.

“If you asked most of those against cremation why they are against it, they would either refer you to the Bible to prove Jesus was buried and not cremated or say it is un-African. But the body is already lifeless; it has no sense of pain. After all, the Bible doesn’t condemn the practice,” Abayizera quips.

Cremation is just wrong – Pastor Maurice Rukimbira

Pastor Maurice Rukimbira of Anglican Church Kigali Diocese says that shortage in space to inter bodies should not be an excuse to practice cremation.

“We have lots of unproductive land that cannot be used for agriculture or construction of commercial or residential buildings; it can be put to such use. With proper space management, we can manage to send off our loved ones decently.”

The pastor adds that the effects of graves on the ecosystem can be reduced by using bio-degradable coffins that rot faster. “There are many ways to go about it but cremation is just wrong. The period of mourning takes not less than 15 months for natural deaths, people already have a hard time coping with death, imagine the trauma that the family of the deceased would go through when their loved one is consumed by flames as they watch.” 

The pastor adds that Rwandans should not lose their values and culture in an attempt to be like other countries or societies. “Before embracing foreign cultures, it would be good for Rwandans to question themselves if they are ready for consequences that come with the changes, like our respect for those who came and went before us. Our African culture keeps us together and helps us get through difficult moments like death; practices like cremation threaten to take away our values,” Pastor Rukimbira says.

“I am also curious on the disposing of ashes left behind after cremation, will it be done hygienically?”  Rukimbira asks.

Cremation is a solution to the challenges faced during burials – Patrice Bizimungu

Patrice Bizimungu a 40-year-old lecturer in Kigali says that he wouldn’t mind cremation when he passes on. He says that after watching documentaries of the process, he concluded cremation would be a solution to so many challenges that people experience during burials.

“Cremation would enable families get over their grief faster; the sight of a grave brings back unpleasant emotions of the loss. It should not be looked at as hastening the mourning process; it would be easier if we took emotions out of the topic.  It would also be very effective in environmental conservation since we would not need as much timber used to make coffins,” Bizimungu says.

“Most of the reasons Rwandans give for not preferring burial to cremation are purely cultural or out of fear to embrace change. Most people cite fear of bad omens; fear of the Maker’s judgment which is not a sustainable reason. We should quit short term thinking, let’s think of 20 or so years to come. Do we have to wait until we have no space to bury people to see the advantages of cremation?  Do we have to wait until we have shortage of space and environmental problems for us embrace change?” Bizimungu asks.

Cremation is subjecting the deceased to punishment – Michael Rutamu

Michel Rutamu who is turning 58 years in a few months time is bothered that some are considering cremation as an option. Though he cannot claim to adhere faithfully to all religious teachings and instructions, he says cremation is not very different from subjecting the deceased to punishment.

“When you burn (or allow the burning of ) a human body, it is like you are sending them to hell yourself  and it also shows that you have no respect for the dead and have no plan of remembering them or holding on to their memories. It shows that you want nothing to do with them. We are social beings, we cannot pretend to have no feelings for those who have passed away,” Rutama says.

With time, people will embrace it – Mayor Fidel Ndayisaba

Mayor of Kigali, Fidel Ndayisaba holds nothing against cremation as he sees it as a solution in dealing with several challenges. “Personally I see nothing wrong with cremation, it would come as a handy solution in dealing with several challenges, but it cannot be forced on people. After someone close passes on, most people require time to mourn the irreplaceable loss which burying provides so it is understandable that most people prefer in-ground burying.  But at some point I think more  people shall see it’s advantage and embrace it slowly as time goes by,” Ndayisaba says. 

Whether cremation will ever be embraced and made a norm, it will take more than just convincing Rwandans that it is safe and means no disrespect to the deceased. Only time will tell.


Famous people who chose cremation

In the past, there have been leaders and pathfinders who have chosen to leave the world through cremation of their bodies. Below is a partial list of these famous people:
Albert Einstein - thought to be one of the greatest physicists of all time, whose name became a synonym for the word “genius”.
Sigmund Freud - the father of modern psychoanalysis, which serves as the current basis for all existing theories about understanding the mind.
Robert Oppenheimer - the most important nuclear physicist to work on the American Manhattan Project; he was the first to exploit nuclear energy.
Arthur Rubenstein - one of the greatest pianists and conductors of the 20th century. The Arthur Rubenstein International Piano Competition was named in his honour.
Harpo Marx - one the three famous Marx brothers. In his will, he directed that he be cremated.

Alexander Fleming
Greta Garbo
Marvin Gaye
George Harrison
Henry James
John F. Kennedy
Rudyard Kipling
John Lennon
George Bernard Shaw



What do you think?

There is limited space and the fact that everyone has to be buried in a public grave yard is bothersome. I would rather have my loved one’s ashes to myself than being in that crowded yard.

Benson Gatete, farmer

In our culture we celebrate someone’s life, why should I adopt the western culture? My loved ones wouldn’t want that and neither would I. Burial is a sign of respect to both culture and the deceased.

Petronillah Umugisha, mother of two.

I would rather have ashes in a pot somewhere in my house than a grave in my backyard. It’s fine for me and if a loved one doesn’t mind it either then that will make things so much easier.

Alexia Mandela, Shop attendant

What if the person was in a comma and could actually survive? There are many cases where people wakeup just before they are put six feet down. In the case of cremation, there is no chance of survival. I wouldn’t let any of my loved ones go through this.

Protogen Kwibuka, graduate.

Vox pop by Patrick Buchana


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