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New Times did not explain proposed changes in Rwanda burial law

In African societies, death is an emotive topic discussed in hushed tones.

In some communities, bodies of the dead – and the dying – were cast in forests to degenerate in the hands of the vagaries of weather, and wild animals. To them, life ended at death. Yet in others, such as those in ancient Egypt, the dead were mummified and accompanied in their tombs with some of their valued belongings to begin a sojourn into ‘life’ that extended yonder into infinity.

In some of these societies, the advent of Christianity – complete with the belief in the body transitioning into spirit after death – informed the respectful and careful handling of the dead. For example, bodies are reserved to lie in state, awaiting the ultimate resurrection on the return of Jesus Christ. There’s a tinge of irony, though. The same Holy Bible describes the body of the dead as the earth returning to the earth.

Indeed, the belief in life after death and the quest for generations to remember the dead has led to some societies preserving the dead in tombs with permanent signposts of cemented graves. This explains why graves in cemeteries and some homes are properly made with concrete equipment, complete with tiles and granites. It is the way of the living ensuring that dead are remembered forever by the current and future generations.

However, the long-held practice of cementing graves hasn’t been alive to the fact that the rising population worldwide comes with concomitant need for more land, a finite resource. To respond to this reality, communities with scarce land have resorted to creative ways of burying the dead. For example, in Seychelles, underground floors of graves are dug to accommodate as many bodies as possible. There, several under-floors are made with compartments into which bodies are inserted. That way, the lithosphere becomes the ‘store’ of as many bodies as possible to reserve the scare space on the surface.

And with the runaway rural-urban migration in most African countries in pursuit of jobs and better lives, the need for more places to bury the dead is on the rise. For example, in Rwanda, the grim reality of scarce grave space has forced the Kigali administration to think out of the box. President Kagame’s government has proposed a law to ban cementing of graves to allow quick reuse. On Thursday, April 25, 2024, the New Times reported on the initiative. In a story titled, ‘Govt mulls ban on concrete tombs to optimise land use’, the publication spoke of plans to amend the 2013 law that deals with the management of cemeteries.

“A proposed law amendment seeks to ban burying the dead in tombs built with cement and tiles to address delays in land reuse, according to the Ministry of Local Government (MINALOC).

“It argues that tombs constructed with cement and tiles can hinder the natural decomposition process of bodies, and prevent the land from being repurposed efficiently, resulting in cemetery scarcity,” said the story reported by Tonny Mwiseneza.

It went on: “One of the ways to amend the law determining the organisation and use of cemeteries is to address the challenge by prohibiting burial tombs with cement, tiles, and metallic materials that take long to decompose, thus prolonging land reuse period,” said Joseph Curio Havugimana, the Head of Communications at MINALOC.

Reporter Mwiseneza added a few paras to explain why such built-to-last graves were posing grave space challenges in the landlocked country of 13.8 million people.

“The composition of cement involves the blend of materials like limestone and clay, which undergo high-temperature processes to create robust, resilient substances. This results in a durable material that is highly resistant to the natural decomposition process. Similarly, tiles, whether crafted from ceramic, glass, or natural stone, are intentionally manufactured to be enduring and steadfast. These materials are designed to withstand degradation from natural elements.”

However, this gravely important story could have been made more compelling had the reporter done more research and harvested diverse voices.

For example, the story failed to state what urban or rural centres were most affected by the permanent grave menace as to contextualise the story. Instead, the story was based on only one official source: the Ministry of Local Government. Reporter Mwiseneza should have also interviewed real people to add life to and lend his story the much-needed believability.

The story should have had interviews of different people from communities that cement graves to understand why the practice was rampant. What informed their decisions? Themselves or were they guided by the wills of the dead? If so, why? Is the practice based on African traditional sagacity of the practicing communities, or is it informed by Christianity or other religious beliefs? Readers were not told. There was another missing angle to the story. Are there communities, families, or faiths in Rwanda which don’t cement graves? If there are, why? A contrast of views from different practitioners could have lent the story some degree of ideological balance.

There was more. The writer, after presenting clashing views from different people on grave treatment, should have crossed over to the academia to seek views from psychology, philosophy, and religious scholars. Theirs would be the informed but analyses on how the living perceive death and handle the dead.

Lesson learnt? Reporting on relational matters between the living and the dead in the African context requires a deep understanding of a people’s culture, religion, sagacity, and the influence of any foreign beliefs.

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