To bury or not to bury:
Learning to process death from the Kikuyu people in Kenya

In Health and Healing by Abeera Shahid

Death. Full stop. The word instills fear, memories of tragic loss. Like the ability of smoke to take over a room in seconds, death is thought to come at any moment. It is not a universal experience, but rather, unique patterns of experiences stitched together. Each community constructs their own story of death and attributes meaning to it based on their lived reality.

Some societies have a more individualized approach to processing death while others are more community-oriented. These attitudes are connected to the way we physically deal with the bodies of our loved ones who have passed. Therefore, burial practices can be a mirror into a society’s relationship with death. I want to highlight these connections by contrasting the “Western” and “African” approaches to coping with death, followed by a peek into the story of the Kikuyu people of Kenya to examine how their burial practices have evolved since the advent of colonization. I speak about the Kikuyu because I had the privilege of learning from their perspectives while spending several months in Kenya in a small town outside of Nairobi, where they inhabit. 

Re-evaluating the individualized model of “Western” bereavement

My dominant (and somewhat oversimplified) conception of death as someone living in the “Western” part of the world is that it is individualized. When a person passes, their immediate family mourns and although there is a funeral with the community, their engagement usually stops there. Those whose worlds have changed due to their loss are often left to grieve privately. Bereavement has even been studied and medicalized to the extent that there are five distinct stages of grief. And if you don’t get past your grieving at a reasonable pace, it is pathologized. There is rarely space for community dialogue, instead a preference for compartmentalizing one’s feelings. This individualized model of bereavement does not hold in all parts of the world, and I believe we can learn from that. 

African scholars, such as Dr. Nwoye, have described grieving in African societies as a community process, where there is just as much emphasis placed on the deceased’s role within the community as there is on supporting their loved ones. There are often rituals involving the whole community to work through grief and conceptualize the future without this person. In contemporary times, cultural practices on grieving are more layered and nuanced, influenced by factors such as colonization, religious or spiritual beliefs, and urbanization. Recognizing that community can be at the centre of death provides an alternate framework for processing loss. 

To bury or not to bury, the body as a lens to our relationship with death

For historical context, Kenya was colonized by the British between 1890-1963. Currently, Kenya has over 42 indigenous ethnic groups, of which the Kikuyu are the largest and make up 17% of the population. Colonization was a cultural disruptor in many ways, with the influence of Christian missionaries and the concerted effort by the British to change practices they considered inappropriate. One such practice was how the Kikuyu people handled the bodies of the deceased. Before British influence, burial was uncommon as the dead body was seen as unclean and dangerous to touch. Instead, an individual close to passing would be taken to the local forest to rest. If a death occurred in the home, there was a back section created to allow animals entry to collect the body. 

One reflection that emerges from this practice is that a dead body was returned to the earth in a natural way, highlighting a societal attitude that human beings are part of a larger ecosystem. This practice can be considered an extension of a community approach to coping with death, with the idea of community encompassing the natural world, and not just the man-made one. This approach stands in contrast to the British or christian preference for burial in a casket, the human body going to the earth but kept separate from it. In the same way, families have funerals, but the grieving process largely occurs separately and privately. 

During the colonial period, British administrators and Christian missionaries pressured the locals to bury all bodies. They faced resistance but eventually succeeded as the practice became adopted with the conversion to Christianity. However, the Kikuyu people made the practice their own by including purification rituals to avoid the perceived negative repercussions of touching the body. Burial also became associated with land ownership. In 1933, Chief Koinange, a prominent figure in Kenya’s independence movement used the burial of his grandfather to assert his right to the land, which the British were wrongfully occupying. One can argue that the Kikuyu were forced to adopt a more individualized approach to coping with death in concert with the practice of burial, however, their co-optation of the British method as a form of resistance suggests complexity. Even though bodies are not returned to the forest as they were in the past, there are still sentiments of community mourning and rituals. 

Parting thoughts  

The passing of a loved one is never easy.  It is made even harder when we keep death in the private sphere as per the norm in “Western” society. What if we envisioned a different way of processing loss? We can learn from the perspectives of African communities like the Kikuyu, who in spite of changes in practices due to colonial influence, continue to see a more intimate relationship between death, community, and the natural world. Instead of processing loss alone, we could prioritize community support and acknowledge the interconnectedness of our relationships. 

Disclaimer: The author based this piece on academic research and personal experience. As they do not occupy the identity of the community discussed, they apologize for any misinterpretations or omissions although they have worked to minimize them. Please reach out if you have any concerns or feedback on the piece. 

Main Sources: 

Njue, Jane Rose M., et al. “Death, grief and culture in Kenya: experiential strengths-based research.” The World of Bereavement. Springer, Cham, 2015. 3-23.

Droz, Yvan. (2011). Transformations of Death among the Kikuyu of Kenya; From Hyenas to Tombs.