I was once invited to a meeting to advise on how to return a body from California, USA.
A young man who had been in the USA for two years was found dead in an apartment. His death remains a puzzle partly because on the night before his death, he had a good time with his friends and there was no indication of him being stressed or troubled.
Also, there was no trace of suicide traits in his family. The deceased was survived by twin girls aged eight. He also owned a piece of land in Namugongo.
The family members wanted to bring his body back for burial on obutaka (ancestral ground). But they were stuck for ideas and money. The condolence contributions so far were too low even to purchase an air ticket for one person.
I asked them how much each had individually contributed to the cause! I also asked them whether they had established how much they needed to return the body. I was told it was about Shs 65 million.
They intended to sell the deceased’s land to raise the money so as to return the body. I objected. First, they did not have powers to sell the deceased’s property. Two, the deceased had left two daughters who might benefit from that land.
I advised them to do either of two things: I told them that if they felt very strongly that they needed to return the body or cast their last eyes on the deceased as custom demanded, then they should send a team to fulfill that ritual in the USA.
These should buy their own tickets and maybe buy tickets for the orphans. Alternatively, I advised them to select some people to travel to USA and organise cremation for the deceased.
This suggestion earned me an expulsion from the meeting. They didn’t even want to listen to my reasons of how it was far cheaper to transport ash compared to a body. I was rebuked as someone who had been spoilt by bazungu (Europeans).
I was told cremation was against our culture and a preserve of Indians. At the end of it all, they failed to return the body because they could not raise the money. Their son is still buried in foreign land.
And none of those who were vociferous for the sanctity of culture were even able to contribute to the welfare of the orphans. I have since read in papers where people hold meetings to raise money to return the dead home.
Culture involves customs and beliefs, ways of life and social arrangements of a particular society at a particular time and place. And culture is also influenced by technology and economics, among others. The technological and economic advancements greatly affect the way people interact with one another and the beliefs they hold.
Therefore, culture evolves and it is important to interrogate how some of the customs and beliefs became dominant. If this person had died while on pilgrimage to Mecca, the relatives would have no problem having the deceased buried there.
The belief is that God decided for that person to be buried in holy land! But USA is not Mecca; therefore, all efforts must be mustered to return the deceased to butaka!
I would like to think that the primary decision to bury pilgrims in the holy land was largely dictated by economics and pragmatism. This later became culture and many people aspired to die and be buried there.
Funerary practices in Uganda have changed as the economic changes unfurl. The culture of the dead being wrapped in bark cloth and then buried is slowly being displaced by emergence of coffins! Why are coffins embraced and cremation loathed?
Some people believe that when someone is burnt other than being buried, then his or her prospects of a happy afterlife are quashed. But then what happens to those who die in planes crashes and their bodies are burnt to smithereens?
How about those who die in fires? How about those whose bodies disappear for good in water or those who are eaten to the bones by wild animals? Do they have a chance for a happy afterlife? Others believe that it is only the evil ones who should be burnt and their ashes scattered.
If burial is assumed to be the return of the body to nature, then cremation or being buried naked or in bark cloth should be the most appropriate approach. The dead should be let to blend naturally with nature and nothing more.
For those who fear that when you are cremated, you will not resurrect, you need to address your mind to this verse in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 15:35-55. “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever.
Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”
Finally, I am also fortified in this belief in cremation by these words of wisdom in Genesis 3:19 : “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When one is cremated, the body turns to ash or dust. We came from dust and we should not fear to return to dust. Let’s embrace cremation to save money and land for burial.
The author is the business development director at The Observer Media Limited.