By Denis Jjuuko
More than a month ago, I lost a close relative. The night after the burial and as the hundreds of people that had thronged our ancestral ground had returned to their daily routines, we sat under a blue sky lit by the stars each of us buried in our personal grief. Once in a while, somebody would break the silence with some small talk. I was thinking of the crowd that had spent a night and how the whole of it had disappeared — how life moves on in a fraction of a second!
Then someone asked whether we had hired armed security. I asked what security for? The cars were all in the compound and ideally everyone was expected to take care of their belongings. The security referred to was not for our personal safety or what belonged to us rather for the grave. Why would anyone want armed guards to provide the grave protection? I had not heard of rumours of cannibals in my village. Even then cannibals can easily be dispersed without armed guards.
I was informed that my relative had been buried in a relatively beautiful coffin and therefore thieves may come for it. That it is common for thieves to break the grave, remove the body and disappear with the coffin. People started mentioning whose coffin was stolen and what others did to protect their graves not just in my village but also all over the country. I couldn’t believe how low our country has sunk to the extent that anybody could spend their time thinking and planning how to break a grave and run away with a coffin! A coffin in which a dead body is already buried! Some of my relatives volunteered to spend the night at the gravesite and look for armed guards during the day.
In the morning, the issue of the coffin was discussed again over breakfast. Some people who were not involved in the previous discussion offered new insight. There is nobody who steals coffins, we were told. Where graves are broken into and coffins stolen is always planned in advance with the family of the deceased. That to pretend to be giving the dead a decent burial, relatives hire expensive coffins as a way of showing off. The team hired to construct the grave does shoddy finishing so that when the owners of the coffin turn up in the night to take it back, it is relatively easy to break the grave. It was shocking and revealing. We were told that if we hadn’t hired the coffin and the grave contractor did a thorough job, no thieves would show up. Indeed no thief has ever showed up despite my relative having been buried in a coffin any thief would want to lay their hands on.
The vanity that has been so common at Kwanjula (introduction events) where people hire bags of sugar and salt is now extended to funerals. Growing up in Buganda, funerals were relatively free of fanfare. Children of the deceased wore no shoes and had their hair cut. It was an affair of grieving. With hired coffins, luxury hearses, and muscled suited pallbearers and undertakers, funerals are now the next show off item in the country. It is not uncommon to find relatives buying designer suits for a dead uncle who in life never afforded even a cheap safari suit.
The business of death is booming and now insurance companies provide burial policies. And it is an area perhaps entrepreneurs should further look into. We still don’t have many descent funeral homes and as the economy changes, it will become difficult to burry people during the week. Time will come when most burials take place over the weekend to enable people do business first.
It might be a few years away, but time will come when burials will be confined to cemeteries. As Uganda becomes urban and population grows, there will be continued pressure on land so big burial grounds for each family at one stage will cease to exist. Imagine a family that has burial grounds in Ntinda, as the elders die, the grandkids will want to shift the graves to somewhere else. And because they may not want to go buy some land in Nakasongola just to create ancestral grounds, they may prefer a place not far off where they can buy a small piece of land for the graves and use the balance of the money for whatever they fancy. As we move into living in condos, a time will come when there will be people without land where they can easily burry. If people can hire coffins, they can pay for anything.
The writer is a Communication and Visibility Consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org