When Land Shortages And Poverty Force A Nation To Turn To Cremation

In Rwanda, where 60% of people live below the poverty line and land is scarce, burying the dead comes at too high a price. A new bill before Parliament would introduce cremation, a totally novel concept in this country.

A grave site in Rwanda (elisa finocchiaro)
A grave site in Rwanda (elisa finocchiaro)
Venant Nshimyumurwa

KIGALI - To reduce the cost of funerals and conserve arable lands, the Rwandan government plans to introduce cremation, a custom that is totally foreign to Rwandan culture.

The prices of tombs in Rwandan cemeteries are exorbitant for the poor seeking to bury their dead. "In Kigali and elsewhere, people sometimes have to abandon their dying family members out of fear that they won't have enough to pay for the funeral," says a villager. In Rusororo, a town 20 kilometers from Kigali, a funeral costs from $25 to $1,500 depending on the size of the grave and the materials used.

Moreover, cemeteries take up space in arable lands that aren't cultivated. Yet, the country has over 390 inhabitants per square kilometer -- over 800 in some areas -- and farms are getting smaller and smaller (an average 0.2 hectares in the more populous north of the country). But farmers have to wait at least 20 years to cultivate cemeteries once they have stopped being used. "Some families believe the land where their family members are buried is sacred, and prefer to keep it uncultivated," explains an Eastern villager.

To fix these problems, the Rwandan parliament is mulling a law on the organization and operation of cemeteries, and the introduction of cremation as an alternative to burial.

"The State will create a columbarium where cinerary urns can be kept. Cremation has advantages: it is cheaper and less cumbersome," says an official at the general secretariat of the House of Representatives.

"Even if Rwandans usually bury their dead in tombs, in the future they will have to cremate their family members, whether they like it or not," asserts a member of parliament.

"Brutality of incineration..."

Many Rwandans won't want to be present at the cremation of their family members. "The violence and brutality of incineration are unbearable. In order to respect the human body, which is God's work, when a man dies, you have to bury him," believes Anaclet Kayitare, a Catholic from Kigali. An opinion he shares with this woman from the southern province, who says "cremating a dead person is like mutilating him or her."

Resistance to cremation, which was institutionalized in Asia by Buddhism and Hinduism and is widespread in Europe, is due to the fact that it is totally absent from Rwandan culture and that the population was not consulted on the subject.

Legislators also want tombs to be built with light materials. For the representatives, those used today -- cement, stone, metals -- not only push costs up but also pollute and take a long time to decompose. "You can easily tell the rich from the poor in a cemetery," says a Gasabo villager. The tombs of the rich are built durably, with tiled walls and written inscriptions for identification.

In rural areas, until recently, it was possible to bury your dead at home or on private land. The new law would make it illegal to bury someone anywhere else than in a cemetery or places of worship.

Read the original article from Syfia in French.

Photo - Elisa Finocchiaro

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