Funerals becoming one big party, again

At an upcountry funeral of a friend I attended last week, about 5,000 mourners greeted and hugged without a care in the world about existence of coronavirus

On the morning of August 21, I travelled to Kisumu County, where I am from, to attend the funeral of my friend, 64-year-old Caleb Otieno Mola. He died of stomach cancer in Eldoret on August 17.

This being my first time to step outside Nairobi since the April lockdown, I knew I would experience a different environment and an unusual funeral ceremony. I boarded a Transline bus after paying Sh1,500, which was almost double the normal fare because it carried only half its capacity of passengers – in line with the government’s Covid-19 restrictions.

The journey took about 10 hours through Maai Mahiu, Narok, Bomet and Kisii before we finally arrived in Urudi, a small market centre in Nyakach sub-county, a few minutes past 6pm.

When I arrived at Caleb’s home, two kilometres from Urudi, my temperature was taken (it read 36.3 degrees Celsius) and I had to wash my hands with soap as well as sanitise. The expansive compound had about 20 white tents and hundreds of seats placed one metre apart.

Coronavirus restrictions were a bit relaxed as the locals intermingled with guests, some going as far as hugging each another. I also did the same with those who demanded it.

By then, the body had not arrived from the mortuary in Kisumu City, about 40 kilometres away. According to Covid-19 funeral regulations, the body should have arrived that morning and been buried immediately. But Caleb’s relatives had requested the government to allow them to bury him the next day.   

Finally, at around 6.30pm, loud wailing and shouts filled the homestead as a long line of motorcycles, cars, vans and buses appeared. The casket was quickly removed and taken to an open field to give mourners a chance to view the body.

The local chief then announced that from 9pm, no one would be allowed to enter or exit the home; those who opted to remain would only be free to leave at 4am, in line with the government-imposed curfew.

Feeling tired, I left with a friend to go and rest in readiness for the burial ceremony the following day. Organisers had said it would start at 8am and end two hours later.

The following day, the ceremony kicked off one hour late than had been promised. Government guidelines allow for only 15 people to be physically present for funerals. But no one was stopped from attending this one and in the end, there were about 5,000 people, thanks to Caleb’s high status and the good relations his family has with the local government administration.

Those who gave tributes, including the deceased’s two wives and six children, were told not to take longer than two minutes. While the majority of speakers complied, some had to be forced to cut short their speeches.

Caleb’s younger brother, Alfred Omondi, moved mourners to tears as he narrated the pain the family experienced while moving him from one hospital to another in search of treatment.

“I’ve lost count of the thousands of shillings we’ve spent on his treatment. When death comes, nothing, not even money or any specialised treatment, can stop it. The doctors had told me he would die despite the treatment he was getting and I had to live with that anguish although I always told Caleb he would soon recover,” he said.

The service was led by Bishop Philip Osenya of African Inland Church, Urudi, and only immediate family members, close relatives and the clergy were allowed at the grave site. The ceremony ended at around 12:30pm and everyone was told to disperse except close relatives and some guests.

Teresiah, a mourner, later told me she was shocked at the high turnout that day. Her concern was that the Luo community could soon regress to the “old normal” way of conducting funerals even before the pandemic is dealt with.

“I fear that we may soon revert to the way things were before. With last month’s easing of travel restrictions, it will just be a matter of days, not months, before the old customs of elaborate feasting and prolonged burial ceremonies return,” she said, adding that she had become used to the new way of conducting funerals since it was inexpensive and less cumbersome.

Her concern was not misplaced – the night before, hundreds of locals had thronged the homestead for singing led by a leading gospel music band.

As I reflected on the day’s events, I could not help but agree with Teresiah that the “old normal” may soon return and perhaps even be worse than before unless something is done.