November 8, 2021

What Happened to Plan for Cremation of Dead Bodies in Rwanda?

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A section of Rusororo cemetery in Kigali. It has had to be expanded several times as many people need space

Unlike other societies where loved ones are buried in the family backyard, in Rwanda, everyone is buried in a cemetery.

In the whole country, there are 1,439 cemeteries where all dead the are by law laid to rest. The problem however, the cemeteries are filling up really fast, and the local authorities have to regularly think of a new place.

Take for example Rusororo on the outskirts of Kigali, the biggest cemetery. It has had to be expanded several times. The ministry of local government which is the line ministry, says once a cemetery is full, the land can only be reusable after 20 years.

There is also another problem; the cemeteries are concrete, which means for them to be reused again, all the concrete may need to be dug out of the soil. This is an endeavor no one, not even the government, is able to do.

Every year, up to 300,000 people die from a range of causes. This is the population of a district. These are so many people, which is taking a lot of land.

Ten years ago, government came up with an idea; cremation of the dead.

The price of a burial plot varies between Rwf150,000 ($150) and Rwf750,000 ($750) depending on the financial muscle of the family.

The current law distinguishes two categories of graves, from an average one to more elaborate ones that have tomb constructions.

To reduce the cost of funerals and conserve arable lands that is being eaten away quickly, the Rwandan government introduced cremation, a custom that is totally foreign to Rwandan culture.

Things moved quickly, there was even am amendment of the law on the dead. Article 31 of the law passed in 2013, introduced cremation as one of the methods to send off the dead in Rwanda.

The law actually requires government to provide the necessary infrastructure to facilitate cremations.

However, a decade later, people still flocking to cemeteries everyday to bury their dead.

Funeral service providers were expected to invest in procuring cremation facilities.

However, Funeral service providers in Rwanda have shied away from investing in cremation services, despite a law legalising the practice.

According to experts, installing cremation facilities with latest technology that is environmentally friendly, a firm needs up to $ 1.2m or Rwf 1.2billion. This is quite a substantial amount of money for local funeral service providers.

Compared to how many people can be able to afford Cremation, the challenge is enormous. The service is extremely rare in Rwanda. No information is available from communities that cremate.

The closest comparison is Kenya. Costs range from Rwf 178,000 and 895,000.

Cremation for an adult can take between five an six hours, after which the family collects the ash.

In Rwanda, there has also been spirited 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.

Last week, on November 2, local government minister Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi appeared before the Lower Chamber and among the issues was how far the cremation project had reached.

Gatabazi informed the House that the private sector was not willing to put their money into cremation facilities as it is very expensive. Funeral service providers do not see how they will be able to get back their money, said the minister.

MPs in response said government should provide the subsidy of setting up the cremation infrastructure. Some even suggested the state buys the machines for the private sector. Others said government does the service itself.

MPs also said the cremation policy and law were adopted without involving majority of the citizens or carrying out enough research. They predicted that its implementation will remain problematic unless citizens are gradually convinced to change their cultural beliefs and mindsets.

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.

Many Rwandans won’t want to be present at the cremation of their family members. For now, we will continue to bury our dead in cemetery.

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