Cremations ‘threaten’ Zimbabwe’s ancestral spirits

By Brian Hungwe

Cremation is provoking a huge debate in Zimbabwe, bringing cultural and religious beliefs to the fore, journalist-turned-barrister Brian Hungwe writes from Harare.

“For
you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” – this verse from
the Bible holds little sway with many Christians in Zimbabwe who oppose
cremation.

They want their bodies interred intact – and feel that nature should take its course, instead of hastening a return to dust.

Cremation
subjects a human body to intense heat ranging from between 500C (930F)
and 800C. It is the family’s choice to then decide what to do with the
ashes afterwards.

The contentious topic of cremation is again in
the headlines as the municipal council of Zimbabwe’s second city,
Bulawayo, has recommended mandatory cremation for those who die aged 25
and under.

The proposal comes less than two years since the
council had said the bodies of children aged 10 and younger should be
cremated – highlighting the stark reality facing urban planners.

The rapid population growth around
Zimbabwe’s urban centres means burial space is running out. Councillors
have limited options and they feel cremation is the solution.

One
of the city’s six cemeteries – West Park Cemetery – is reported to only
have space for 200 graves. And the capital, Harare, is facing similar
problems.

There are disputes about what the Bible actually says
about cremation, but the core opposition to cremation is likely to
spring from traditional burial rites.

Sprinkling beer required at gravesides

Cultural activists say cremation has no expression is African traditional religion.

The
dead, known as “the ancestors”, are symbolic and carry a lot of weight
amongst the living. They need to be respected, and to do that you need a
grave that you can take care of.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Most Zimbabweans are deeply religious

There are rich cultural practices to be done at the graveside that involve the sprinkling of beer to appease the forefathers.

With ashes sprinkled in “no man’s land”, this would make the ritual difficult to practise.

The
spiritual connection between the dead and the living is difficult to
disconnect. Cremating a human body entails that sad disconnection. And
there is a strong view that this is a foreign culture.

What the
late Gordon Chavunduka, a former vice-chancellor of the University of
Zimbabwe, said nearly 20 years ago still holds true for some: “The
philosophy of death in Shona African society says it takes about a year
for a spirit to leave the body and join the spirits of the ancestors.

“If the body is cremated, that spirit would be blocked. Although it would remain alive, it would be angered that traditional burial rites had not been followed properly and could return to punish the family and community.”

It may also explain why the authorities are shrewdly
suggesting that those who die younger be cremated – as they have no
descendents or long memories that would require traditional rituals.

The
council’s proposal excludes adults aged over 25, who would be more
likely to have children looking up to them in the spiritual realm.

‘Fear of witches’

Yet even on the cultural side there are those in favour of cremation – though perhaps for more tongue-in-check reasons.

One
Harare resident has been quoted as saying it would be a good way to
save oneself from the witches of the spirit world, who some believe can
exhume and feast on dead bodies.

“I will not give them that
satisfaction because now they must be salivating, lusting after my thick
frame and big bottom. But if I am to be cremated tough luck on them,
they can only sniff my ashes spread all over the village,” she told the
state-run Herald newspaper.

Environmentalists have also argued
that cremation is a better option, saying that coffins are usually
coated with preservative paints and varnishes containing dangerous
chemicals such as mercury that can contaminate underground water
systems.

But at the end of the day, if anything is going to
encourage a move away from burials to cremation in Zimbabwe, it is the
cost factor.

The majority of the population is struggling to make a living as the economy yet again seems to be floundering.

As the Bulawayo-based Chronicle newspaper noted, it costs about $63 (£55) to cremate a body, while conducting a burial without a funeral policy is about $1,000.

BBC