Is Cremation a Taboo for Blacks?

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By Mbatjiua Ngavirue WINDOEK With burial space in Windhoek scheduled to run out by 2020, the question being asked is why don’t more black Namibians opt for cremation. Cremation at the moment seems to be limited mainly to white Namibians, with only a handful of people from the Coloured and Baster communities choosing the option. Among black Namibians, however, cremation is vir-tually unheard of because of deep-rooted cultural reasons. Opinions seem to differ on exactly why Africans generally do not even consider cremation, although most people seem to agree the reasons are cultural. Retired politician Andrew Matjila – generally considered an authority on African traditions – says cremation never existed in African tradition. He says the argument that is normally used is that to black people the body is sacred and must therefore remain “intact” at burial. “White people cremated their people even before the dawn of Christianity. The Vikings, for instance, burnt their dead at sea in a boat, which was considered a sacred ritual. “But as far back as anyone can remember, black people have never cremated their dead,” he explained. Another source, that wished to remain unnamed, suggested black people’s reluctance to cremate has something to do with the need to communicate with their ancestors. The four main cemeteries in Windhoek – Gammams, Khomasdal, Oponganda and Old Location – currently bury between 1 440 and 1 680 a year. City of Windhoek PRO Liz Sibindi says that with burial space estimated to run out in 2020, the City will in future take steps to promote cremation in order to save already scarce and valuable land. The question that however remains is whether the practice will ever catch on among black Namibians. Scarcity of land is not the only issue because cost is another important consideration that needs to be taken into account. Middle-income people spend approximately N$5 000 – N$7 000 just on the funeral service, but when the gravesite, flowers and a tombstone are included the cost easily rises to N$10 000 or more. This estimate is based on a coffin of N$2 000, but depending on the prominence of the person, the family might pay N$7 000 to N$8 000 for the coffin alone. The wealthy might even pay as much as N$15 000 to N$20 000 for a casket. A gravesite in Windhoek costs between N$623 and N$1 500, depending on whether it is in Katutura or you choose a more upmarket final resting place such as Gammams cemetery. The cost of a tombstone can vary from anything between N$5 000 to N$30 000, again depending on how grand the family wants it to be. To make matters worse, most black Namibians do not even want to be buried in Windhoek, but instead choose to be returned to their village, which adds considerably to the cost. Sanette Jordaan, who owns the undertaking firm Classic Funerals together with husband Jorrie Jordaan, confirmed that it is mainly members of the white community that opt for cremation. She said that with white Namibians, the decision to cremate depends on their religion and whether they are modern or traditional, estimating that as many as 50% of whites choose cremation. The main attraction of cremation, she said, is that it is generally much cheaper since it is possible to keep the total cost down to N$3 500. Jordaan was anxious to point out that their firm specialises in funerals for low-income earners, and can in fact provide a normal funeral for as little as N$2 000. Cremations however have certain fixed costs imposed by the law and the City of Windhoek, which makes it impossible to provide the service at less than N$3 500. The law requires that three doctors appointed by the Medical and Dental Council sign the death certificate before a cremation can take place. This is apparently to prevent the evidence from going up in smoke in case of foul play. The City of Windhoek, that runs the Crematorium, curiously demands the body must be in a coffin when being cremated, which might seem a waste of a good coffin to many people. Jordaan said she and her husband never even suggest the option of cremation to black clients as some of them might become very angry. “We don’t ask questions because it is very sensitive and they are already grieving,” she commented. Meanwhile, Adelle Alberts, manager of Jarman Funeral Services, which works closely with the Coloured community, says they maybe receive only one request for cremation every three or four months. Manager of Avbob in Windhoek, Hendrik Knouwds, indirectly appeared to confirm Matjila’s theory about a link with Viking tradition, saying that it is mainly German-speaking Namibians that choose cremation. This suggests cremation might be more a north-European tradition rather than a custom among local white people as such. Knouwds suggested the rate of cremation among white Namibians is much lower than 50%. He however indicated cremation is becoming increasingly popular among other white Namibians, particularly among Afrikaners. The main reason for this, he said, is growing vandalism of graves and the current state of neglect at many cemeteries. As an example he mentioned seven to eight graves recently vandalised at both the Keetmanshoop and Mariental cemeteries. At the MaltahÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¶he cemetery all the trees have died as a result of neglect. Knouwds said a client of his who reserved a gravesite at MaltahÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚¶he cemetery long ago, recently called him to say he had changed his mind and wants to be cremated because of his alarm over the poor state of the cemetery. According to Knouwds, the situation has also impacted the sale of wreaths, which dropped by 627 within a three-month period this year compared to the corresponding period the year before.