The Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) has announced that there are over 150 unclaimed bodies in different public morgues in the city.
This comes at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in different sectors including the health system, and significantly changed life as Kenyans know it.
Yesterday, Kenya registered the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths, 23, in a single day. That number took the death toll to 364 and cases of infections have now surpassed 20,000.
The country has been treated to situations where the dead, especially those who have succumbed to the coronavirus, are buried in body bags and in some cases without any decorum as expected of African culture. But this has been necessitated by the order to have dead people buried quickly and without much fanfare.
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Before the coronavirus, the death of person would be the beginning of an elaborate process depending on the culture of the deceased. From burial within a few hours to prolonged funeral services marked with endless drama, funerals were part of us.
All this have changed after government ordered that burials be conducted within 48 hours. This is a measure to encourage physical distancing which is challenging to maintain where people congregate.
But this order also came with another challenge – not every family has the finances to expedite burial plans and a number of families have been disenfranchised and with job losses, funds for burials is not easy to come by.
However, with the cultural values attached to funerals, some families have decided to wait till the situation gets better before they can bury their dead. With the reality that the situation might not get back to normal — how people knew it before — Kenyans must be ready and prepared to accept the new normal that is slowly creeping in.
Handling the dead is one of the ways that seem to be changing. For those willing to accept the reality, it has been easier but for those who still see a challenge, the journey is long and painful. This could be the origin of bodies piling up and overwhelming the morgues. Kenyans should take a different approach to carrying out funerals including embracing burials in cemeteries as opposed to ancestral homes.
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Even then, another problem subsists. Nairobi has a shortage of burial spaces. This is partly due to poor planning as well as corrupt deals that have in the past hampered attempts to procure cemeteries elsewhere.Other counties are affected as well and this shortage of burial space has led to the fear that the indignity the departed are treated with has somehow repulsed people from considering cemeteries during these trying times.
Even in burials there should be innovation and the welcoming of new models. Of late, a number of individuals have embraced cremation as another way of interring the dead. But, save for societies that do it traditionally, it has been for the elite who have chosen to transcend their cultures.
That said, the government should step up its support. This could be in assisting the bereaved who cannot cater for funeral expenses to respectfully bury them without any confrontations or force. However, they must ensure the safety protocols are adhered to.
As more deaths are expected from Covid-19 alongside other causes, the time rethink funeral and burial rights has come. It will be difficult but it has to be done because we are living in abnormal times, which call for a shift in thinking and action.
Culture change could be made possible where there is a critical need and the need here is to ensure the living are safe while the departed get a dignified sendoff. Times have changed and we must change too.
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Still, it would be unfortunate to leave the poor to their own devices, while the well-to-do conduct elaborate burials for their loved ones. It is time to agree on a bare minimum and ensure the dead get a fitting sendoff.