We are more than the most brilliant robots. We are conscious beings. But we are not the only conscious beings. Every living being with a functional brain is or should be conscious of its environment, in which it lives and finally dies.
When a human being dies it is disposed of. There are many ways of disposing of a dead human and how it is done is largely determined by culture or traditional cultural practices. Wherever on Earth we live we are conscious that we are are living things that are born, grow, manifest in terms of living and then die. It is a life-death loop that no one can escape. But in many cases it comes as a surprise yet it is a natural phenomenon that we all see and experience, and that is important ourselves and other beings – human or non-being.
In this article I want discourse on the different ways in which people of different cultures disposed of their dead and “with a view to proposing that we need to change our mindsets and burial processes and adopt more environmentally-conscious (eco-friendly ) ones if we are to maintain and sustain our environment in modern times and contain climate change”.
We, and other beings, belong to what is called the Life-Death Cycle, a continuous loop in which the life component feeds into the death component, and vice versa, through flow of energy and cycling of materials. Ecologically- speaking everything we took while living is supposed to go back to the soil, where, according to the Bible, Man, Homo sapiens, came from by an Act of God.
So the continuous loop is a loop of life, death, and rebirth, and it is “the heart of all life”, from which we can never escape, whether in living or dead form. It is a natural balancing phenomenon that sustains life by maintains a beneficial relationship between the living and the dead. The living get all the energy that powers life and all the materials of which they are made from dying to release energy and materials. We spend too little time in the living form and far more time in the dead form, in which form we are supposed to nourish life.
Therefore, to live we need death, not only us but also other living things. The dead must decay to release energy and materials, which are then supplied for the living. The decaying process is achieved through a group of living things called microorganisms (that is bacteria and fungi), which feed on the dead. If they did not intervene, dead material would not decay and would instead go on accumulating everywhere and into space, thereby making life unlivable for the living. Besides, there would be a terrible stench everywhere, and oxygen -the air of life -would increasingly occur small amounts, because vegetation, which is the primary producer of that gas would be constrained to do that essential act. In one sentence, there would be no life.
Unfortunately, we are doing everything, foolish ly, arrogantly, and stupidly, to disorganise the life-death cycle, either by accelerating death or decelerating death, or by interfering with the work of the microorganisms that break down dead organic matter.
We may accelerate death of humans by denying them factors of life or quality health in favour of things that do not add value to life. We may accelerate death by subjecting human life to wars that decimate bodies, destroy the living space, cause mass population displacements, and convert people either into internal or crossborder refugees, which may precipitate clash of cultures and civilisations or hatred and physical clashes leading to death or eliminations through ethnic cleansing.
Our concern is how we get rid of our dead through culturally specified funerals. Some funerals are environmentally-conscious or eco-friendly and add value to the life-death cycle. Increasingly, due to environmental ignorance, environmental bankruptcy and environmental corruption driven by greed and selfishness, funerals have become polluted by the sterile culture of money, done to accrue monetary gains to those who organise them, enhancing environmental destruction, thereby adding no value to the life -death cycle. They are environmentally-unconcious or ecologically- unfriendly.
Whatever the funeral type and wherever it takes place, it includes a ritual through which the dead is finally disposed of. There are always a lot of cultural and religious connotations, but political connotations come in if someone dies when he or she has been big, and the State gets involved, to the extent of even claiming ownership of the body and its disposal process. Cultural and religious requirements and practices in the ritual are diverted and corrupted, often involving unashamed appropriation of taxpayers money, just for the State to demonstrate that it has lost someone of importance and, by extension, even try to use the death as an opportunity to enhance its legitimacy.
Otherwise normally, where cultural, traditional and religious values are pursued in the disposal of the body, the body may be destroyed either by cremation or in sky burials, or it may be preserved as in mummification or interment.
In Tibet, for example , bodies are cut into pieces and left for the predator birds of the air to clear them off. On the other hand in india, or wherever Indians exist, even in Uganda, dead bodies are cremated ( burnt to ashes) and the ashes are spread on the water of lakes or rivers. Nothing is wasted.
All these funeral practices are eco-friendly and add value to the life-death cycle. They are life-sustaining.
In Uganda, the indigenous Basoga of of 350 years ago never buried the dead as such. They would put the dead, not far from their domiciles, at the base of the Ficus tree. Water streaming down the stem of the tree would wash the nutrients of the decomposing body down into the soil, and the tree would suck them up through its roots and make use of them in manufacturing food. The birds of prey such as vultures and kites, would eat up the flesh. Wild dogs, jackals and foxes would eat up the bones, leaving only the skull, which was difficult to crash because of its shape. On the other hand, nomadic pastoralists, who were more attached to the cow and grass than to people or themselves, would simply abandon the dead body to the birds of prey, wild dogs, jackals and foxes. All this treatment of the dead was eco-friendly and added value to the life-death cycle.
Modern funeral practices today rely on what the family of the dead or the dead himself/herself wanted, when he or she was alive, to happen to his or her body. However, depending on the social or official status in Government, the State may overlook cultural or religious practices and do its own things oblivious to the wishes of family and the dead.
While Obote was buried in his ancestral place in Lango, he was nonetheless buried in a coffin and his body was impregnated with chemicals to arrest the bacterial action of breaking it down into materials and energy that could be used by the living. The grave itself was concretised with tiles so that roots of any nearby trees could not tap into the body. This is the popular, increasingly expensive and environmentally destructive way most Ugandans are burying their dead. Then pray to God to send them rain and free them from the negative impacts of climate change.
Burials have become more expensive than the health of the living. For example , when we lost the incorruptible former Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, overzealous Government official estimated that the taxpayers would have to part with UG Shs. 2.5 billion to accomplish the funeral process to the full, but following public concern, they reduced the cost to UG Shs 1.2 billion -still too expensive for the poor country. We shall never know how exactly the fallen Speaker would have wanted to be buried, but his funeral has emerged to be the most expensive in the country’s history. We can only imagine how expensive the coffin is, because of the corruption of his funeral, but it could be either wooden or plastic.
We don’t know how much the burial of Ignatius Musaazi , the originator of Uganda National Congress, and former President Yusuf Lule, whose final resting places are at Kololo airstrip, cost. Evidently, the cost of Oulanyah’s burial exceeds that of the burials of Obote, Ignatius Musaazi or Yufu Lule, as if the aim was to devalue those great sons of Ugañda and their struggles for independence. Or is it to devalue independence altogether? Debatable. But we can guess whose funeral will exceed that of Oulanyah in expense when death strikes, since the decision-makers are the same with like mindsets, with those at the top more attracted to interest politics than identity politics and to spending more on non-living things than on living humans.
The former Attorney General of Kenya, Charles Njonjo, who died recently at the age of 101 decreed that the State should never ever be involved with his body or burial; that only his family should. He did not like the flair and expense that would be involved, arguing people would just come to eat and make money out of his death. He did not want his body to spend more than 6 days on Earth, and chose cremation (i.e., being burnt to ashes). I never followed to find out how expensive his coffin was, but since cremation involves burning the body under intense heat in a coffin, also the coffin is completely burnt to ashes. Therefore, there is no way he would have wanted an expensive coffin. His funeral choices saved the taxpayers a lot of money, and saved the Kenyan environment further destruction. I never came to know where his ashes, together with those of his coffin, were finally laid. Some friends in Kenya will tell me. What I want to stress here is the Njonjo’s choices regarding his death were socially responsible and environmentally- conscious or eco-friendly. Indeed before he died he revealed that his choices were guided by those of Prof. Wangari Maathai, which were also environmentally-conscious or eco-friendly.
Prof. Wangari Maathai, whom I had a chance to meet at Chiromo Campus of Nairobi University when she was a lecturer there , and I was a post-graduate student of The Biology of Conservation Biology in the very early 1980s, and did meet again at a very important environmental meeting in Denmark in 2010 or 2009( I don’t remember the year) influenced my environmental thinking a great deal.
She passed on in August 2011. I did not know she was suffering from cancer when I met her in Denmark. She died too soon when humanity still needed her environmental influence.
This first African woman to get a Novel Peace Prize was the brain behind the emergence of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya that sought to combat the advance of the Sahara Desert southward onto Kenya, environmental collapse and decay in the country, and to make everyone an agent in environmental renewal by planting trees that were not as foreign as Eucalyptus and Cypress.
By the time she died, 45 million trees had been planted and nurtured to maturity over the whole of Kenya. She showed that human ingenuity, through planting trees, could stop the advance of the desert and improve the quality of environment and life everywhere. For her wonderful wok she got many awards, including: Commissioner for Global Governance and Commission on the Future, Novel Peace Prize in 2004, Sophie Prize 2004 Petri Kelly Prize for Environment and the Conservation Scientist Award 2004.
Of great human survival value was her respect for the Life-Death Cycle, in which she wanted to be integrated firmly in death form after she died. She decreed that she should be buried in a simple grave, without coffin, without concrete and without fanfare, in the centre of a natural woodland. As she decreed, hers was an environmentally-conscious, eco-friendly, life-renewing, inexpensive burial that she wanted all right-thinking, environmentally-conscious people to emulate. If she had not decreed like that, given her global stature, her funeral would have cost billions of shillings and attracted all sorts of signatories that the State Kenya would have to maintain at public cost, before, during and after the burial. So, Wangari Maathai ensured that her funeral was socially sensitive as well.
I cannot end this article without a word on our own environmental writer who influenced many minds with his incisive environmental writings, especially in the New Vision: Ndyakira Ntamuhiira Amooti, who passed on in August 1999 at only 44 years of age. For his environmental influence, he was honoured with the awards of Global 500Roll of Honour and the Goldman Environmental Prize. He, before Wangari Maathai, decreed that his grave should be a simple one, at 6 eet deep, without coffin and without concrete, and in the woods.
Therefore, if we are to save our environment in Uganda, and by extension ourselves, and if we are to revive respect for the Life-Death Cycle, we have to rethink the way we bury our dead. We should aim at protecting funerals from the wayward monetisation and corruption, and ensure that burials take in account the need to continue life without stain or strain through a sustainable life-death Cycle. We have to respect the living as well as the dead in the Life-Death Cycle. If we don’t, we should be ready to increasingly die from cancer as we consume more and more genetically modified organisms (GMOs)and as Climate Change continues to take its toll on human and other life. We need action not talking in conferences and workshops or Parliament. We need action on funerals. The money saved can be invested in environmental renewal to sustain the Life Death Cycle.
For God and My Country.
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