If losing a loved is a bitter pill to swallow, burying the dead is a harrowing experience. In fact, in Africa, death is one of the “taboos” we don’t like talking about or planning towards. People don’t like talking about death. But interestingly, death is a reality no one can run away from, hence, we must talk about. If death is a definite end, everyone ought to be interested in where his or her final resting place would be. This is what this piece is about.
It explores, from the environment angle, commonly avoided questions around death, including where should the remains of loved ones be buried: In the backyard or in cemeteries? Should remains of loved ones be buried at home or in cemeteries? In burying the dead, what factors should be considered in deciding a befitting final resting place?
Before we continue, we must admit that burial of loved ones in residential areas (e.g. in the backyard) is a sensitive matter that must be approached carefully. There is a number of cultural, social, religious, financial, health and environmental issues associated with burying the dead – these must be wholly considered before a final resting site for the dead is decided. In any case, at the end of a man’s journey on earth, one of the most important questions is “Where would be his final resting place?”
Burying the dead in residential areas (at home) is an age-long practice and is referred to as home burial. Once the remains of a corpse is buried on a residential property, the property technically becomes a “burial site”.
Why do people bury corpses of loved ones at home?
People bury the remains of their loved ones at home for different reasons: cultural beliefs; religious sentiments; to prevent illegal sales of contested landed properties by wayward, prodigal sons or relatives (thus, the burial site serves social insurance); as a memorial; as a statement of class or high standing in society etc. But rapid population growth and industrialization, which have brought with them, higher public health concerns, intense competition for limited space, particularly in urban areas, have necessitated another look at the practice.
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People may bury the remains of a relative at home to prevent the land or building from suddenly being sold, for example, by a prodigal son or if the ownership of the property is contested. However, in many places, home burial reduces the market value of the property on which a corpse is buried. Not many buyers would like to buy a property where a corpse is buried.
Some bury the remains of their loved ones at home in order to be close to them. Some believe that having the remains of dead loved close brings good omen. So for those ones, having the burial site close, e.g. at home, is an option.
Is burying of remains of dead loved ones in the backyard a crime?
No, not unnecessarily. But worthy of note is the fact in 2013, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed a bill that outlawed indiscriminate burial of corpses on private property within residential areas in the State. The bill was later signed into law by the then Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN.
That Lagos Law came as a result of indiscriminate burial of the dead all over the place and in virtually any parts of State. There were instances where people buried corpses on the road or in very improper areas which later required relocation of the corpses during future road expansions or road constructions. This and other reasons, including environmental factors and public health considerations, necessitated action by government to regulate how and where the dead is buried in Lagos. The content and appropriateness of that Law is a topic for another day.
Apart from Lagos, which is quite a recent development, burying the dead at home (in residential areas) is not illegal in many other States in Nigeria, making it perfectly legal. Home burial is also not illegal in many States in the United States.
However, even if you must bury the remains of your loved ones at home, there are important factors you must keep in mind.
The cause of death is important in determining the final resting place of the departed.
If the person died a natural death, basic safety measures would be enough in handling and burying the death. Many experts believe that if basic safety measures are followed, home burial is not a threat to public health or environmental security.
In burying dead loved ones, steps must also be taken to ensure that the dead is dignified even in death, and that the remains of the dead person is buried in a way that is environment-friendly and does not endanger public health or undermine public good. It is important to respect the last wishes of the dead and ensure it is carried out to the latter, provided public health is not compromised.
Another important environmental angle to burying the dead is preparation of corpses for burial. In many parts of the world, corpses are embalmed in order to preserve the body in good state before it is eventually buried. While the practice itself may not be bad or harmful, some of the chemicals used to embalm the remains of the dead are carcinogenic and constitute huge risks to the environment. In burying the dead, steps must therefore be taken to not endanger the living by the way the dead is prepared for his final resting place.
On the other hand, if the person died from an infectious or contagious disease such as Ebola, Lassa fever etc., then, some extra steps would need to be taken in handing the remains of the dead person.
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Generally, a burial site (grave) should be at least, six-feet deep. This is to ensure that: the remains is buried at a reasonable point that is beyond the “smell barrier” such that offensive odour during decomposition is not emitted outwards; the remains is not within the easy reach of scavengers such as rodents, criminals who dig up graves or elements of nature such as flood; and to speed up decomposition. The burial site (grave) should also be far from water sources such as rivers or wells, to prevent possible potential contamination, particularly when the remains is embalmed using harmful and suspected carcinogenic chemicals such as formalin.
Most existing public cemeteries in Nigeria are over-whelmed, over-crowded, unsecure and poorly managed. Thus, many people would rather be buried at home than in such places. But this problem presents a unique opportunity for young social entrepreneurs who are interested in building a sustainable solution in this space: green secure, burial sites where people can enjoy true rest in dead.
Talking about final resting place, people want three basic things among other things: security (a secure location that is safe from unscrupulous elements like kidnappers, safe from harsh elements of nature such as flooding, and safe from sudden government takeovers); accessibility (people want to be sure that members of their families have easy access to their graves and can visit whenever they can); and affordability (people want to be sure that they do not pay through their noses for a decent, safe and secure final resting place).
What other reasons, in your opinions, do people bury the corpses of their loved ones in residential areas? What public concerns could be associated with the practice?
- Idowu Kunlere
Sustainability and Human Development Analyst