The History of Cremation– Prominent Kenyans who opted the Furnace

BY FLORA MWENDWA – Cremation is a method of final disposition wherein combustion, vaporization, and oxidation turns cadavers to basic chemical compounds, such as gases, ashes and mineral fragments retaining the appearance of dry bone or in simple terms the disposal of a dead person’s body by burning it to ashes, typically after a funeral ceremony.

Burial or interment is a method of final disposition wherein a dead person or animal is placed into the ground, sometimes with objects. This is usually accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased and objects in it, and covering it over.

Cremation is a trend which has been on the rise in
Africa at large. The last two months have seen Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore and Kibra MP Ken Okoth opt for cremation as their way of their final disposition.

Igniting the furnace — History of Cremation

Burning a corpse as a final rite of passage has been in practice since prehistoric times. There is evidence that people cremated bodies in China as early as 8000 B.C. Cremation was commonly adopted in some parts of Greece but never became widespread, disappearing by 480 B.C. In Sweden, the majority of funerals were cremations throughout the Iron Age and Viking Age, but stopped once Christianity was introduced (A.D. 1050). In the western Roman empire, cremation was the standard until the first century A.D., often associated with military honors. With the spread of Christianity, cremation was frowned upon and disappeared for the most part in Europe by the fifth century A.D., except in unusual cases such as epidemics or war.

The first person to be legally cremated was Jeanette Caroline Pickersgill of Regent’s Park, London, which happened on March 26 1885. Pickersgill had left instructions in her will that she wished to be cremated. The procedure had been deemed legal a year earlier, in February 1884, after the trial of William Price. Price, who said he was a Druid high priest, had been arrested when he attempted to cremate the body of his infant son. Price successfully defended himself and the judge declared that cremation should be made legal so long as it caused no nuisance to others.

There is a common belief in many African cultures that when people die, they go to meet with their ancestors, and that the body of the deceased should be respected so that they arrive whole.
“Burundian culture says that when someone dies, people only talk about their good side even if the person was bad. This is a sign of respect for the dead and so cremation is difficult to embrace,” Raymond Nzimana, a Burundian journalist.

Kenyans Who opted Cremation

Traditionally, most Kenyans transport their dead back to their home village, the so-called ancestral home, in order to perform ritual and religious burial rights.

In Kenya, the influence of the Hindu culture has seen some people accept cremation, but majority of the people still opt to bury their dead in their ancestral home, in order to perform ritual and religious burial rites.

Kenneth Matiba who is considered the father of multi-party democracy in Kenya surprised many when he declared that he did not want a state burial when he died, instead asserting that he should be cremated.

The former Presidential candidate told a local daily in 1994 that he preferred cremation to burial as he did not want “dancing parties and harambees” upon his death. He also stated that the Kikuyu traditionally never buried their dead. They used to take the bodies into the forest to be devoured by hyenas, which he termed as pure wisdom.

Matiba is not the first prominent Kenyan who wished to be cremated when they died.
Prof. Wangari Maathai The famed conservationist who became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her ‘contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace’ was cremated in 2011 at the Kariokor Crematorium.
Her remains were interred at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in accordance with her wishes.


Manasseh Kuria and his wife Mary Kuria.
The late Anglican archbishop was cremated in 2005 as per his wishes.
With his wife Mary Kuria having also been cremated 3 years earlier at the Lang’ata Crematorium, Manasses’ cremation sparked a major debate within the church on cremation and its place in Christianity.

Other high profile people to be cremated in Kenya include Jeremiah Gitau Kiereini
The late tycoon and former head of public service passed on in May 2019 at the age of 90, Peter Habenga Okondo

The late former labour minister who served in retired President Daniel Arap Moi’s government was controversially cremated in 1996, Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga was a Kenyan gay activist, author, journalist and 2002 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, John Macharia
Macharia, a businessman and son of Royal Media Services (RMS) founder SK Macharia, died in a road accident in Nairobi and was cremated in April 2018 among others.

In Nairobi, the cost of cremation reportedly ranges between KSh 13,000 for adults and KSh 6,000 for children .