HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsIs cremation an option for people in the diaspora?

Is cremation an option for people in the diaspora?


I received a message on Thursday from a friend who was urging Zimbabweans to assist in the dispatching of the body of a Zimbabwean man who died in the United Kingdom about a month ago.

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The message, which has circulated both in the UK, United States and Zimbabwe, reads like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, all Zimbabweans out there, my name is . . . I am asking for your mercy on behalf of the. . .  family who lost their loved one after a short illness. The undertakers, where his body is, need about £2 500 for his remains to be flown home. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to put our heads together and help. I know it’s not easy to help someone you don’t know, but let’s think about his mother back home in Zimbabwe whose heart is bleeding for her dead son’s body . . . Please forward this message to your families and friends.”

The message has a picture attached of the deceased man and contact numbers of well-
wishers dealing with this matter in England.

I was deeply saddened by this event because every one of us has a relative or friend that is living in the Diaspora. What would we do if we were faced with such a scenario? This is a matter that affects us all at a very personal level.

When Zimbabwe’s economy started melting down over a decade ago, many Zimbabweans flocked to many parts of the world for better fortunes. The UK was initially the country where most Zimbabweans fled to, followed by South Africa, the US and now Zambia.

However, the last thing people think about is what will happen in the event that death befalls them while in self-imposed exile. It is such a stressful development that leaves families wondering what steps to take as this involves so much money.
Nearly a decade ago, I lost a relative in the US who nearly received a pauper’s burial because no one had the cash to bring the body to Zimbabwe for burial.

But it so happened that this woman’s brother-in-law who worked in the US, decided to take the burden upon himself and ferry the cremated remains by air to Zimbabwe.
This was the first funeral I ever witnessed of a close person that had been cremated. All that was contained in the little “portable coffin” were ashes of the departed.

It was a funeral that was so difficult to comprehend as a family because this was a new thing to us and sometimes we wonder if she is truly dead. In African custom, it is mandatory for relatives and friends to view the body first before it is interred at a graveyard.

As Zimbabweans flock in search of greener pastures everywhere around the world, none speak about what will happen in the event that they die. Although cremation could be an option, majority of Zimbabweans are yet to grasp this practice.

Cremation is a process that reduces a dead human body to 4 to 8 kilogrammes of bone fragments and other organic and inorganic compounds. This reduction is accomplished, and the body returned to its natural elements, by exposing the remains to intense heat, by dehydration, evaporation, and mechanical processing. These remains are placed in an urn, which can be purchased at funeral parlours, just like we do with the ordinary coffins.

The only difference is that urns are a minute fraction of a coffin which can be carried in a bag. The container resembles the size of a lunch box. The remains are either committed to an indoor or outdoor mausoleum, interred in a family burial plot; or included in a special urn garden.

A NewsDay report last year noted that one of the reasons cremation is not favourable is that most people say they cannot imagine the process of burning a body. A traditionalist, Phathisa Nyathi, who spoke with NewsDay Southern Edition, said Africans did not favour cremation for various reasons. He said the way Christianity has been taught to people also has an impact. Biblically, we have always been taught that it is evil and sinful. “People are burnt in hell fire,” he said. Therefore, most people feel that when a person is being cremated, it is as if you have already sentenced that person to hell.

In most African cultures, cremation is largely considered taboo, but due to increasing shortage of burial land, it is now being touted as an alternative to burial especially in southern Africa.

About two years ago, Harare mayor Muchadeyi Masunda said council was exploring prospects of encouraging cremation instead of traditional burial.

A significant amount of land, which could have been used to set up businesses or residences, is taken up by cemeteries. “With an average of 10 burials a day in a single cemetery in Zimbabwe, and an estimated 12 in Botswana, cremation has been espoused as the only way to solve the growing problem,” reports AfrikNews.

This is a matter local funeral homes have to address to tailor funeral insurance policies targeted at people living in the Diaspora.

“In our culture, death is not simply stopping to live; it’s a transition from one state of being to another. Those who burn their dead have their understanding of death, which is not ours.

“Zimbabweans believe in life-after-death, and so if they cremate their deceased relatives, they feel that the spirit will not live in the afterlife,” said Gibert Mbasa, a local cultural activist who spoke in an interview with AfrikNews last year.

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