Funerals are now showy affairs, with nothing spared to impress


Three years ago, Risper Wasilwa was living in a three-bedroom house in Ngumo Estate in Nairobi, living a fairly comfortable life. Today, she lives in a one-bedroom shack in Kawangware and has to sell porridge to support her five children.

Her life took a dramatic following the death of her 38-year-old husband, Moses, whose funeral drained the family financially. None of the promises of assistance by friends and relatives at his funeral was fulfilled. Her story reflects a problem that’s affecting more and more families when the breadwinner dies.

Psychologist Pauline Ogoro notes that “Funeral expenses leave surviving family members vulnerable to future hardship, with spending on items such as food and clothes significantly lower following the funeral. Children in households that experienced a death are also less likely to be enrolled in school while adults are much more likely to report problems such as symptoms of depression and periods of anxiety.”

But Kenyans continue to spending lavishly on funerals. From buying gem-encrusted coffins and ordering new designer outfits to slaughtering tens of animals and throwing massive feasts, many, it seems, are willing to spend to give their loved ones a “befitting” send-off. Indeed, one could argue that some families spend more on funerals than on any other rite of passage.

In the last 30 years, funerals have morphed from being simple ceremonies where the only issue was getting a coffin to complex events where food must be served, tents hired, fashion and colour concepts considered and the kinds of flowers to be used carefully determined.

Consequently, close friends and relatives of the dead person, especially those in the lower-middle class and the poor, often find themselves forced to contribute amounts that leave them in dire financial straits long after the burial.


Funerals are basically occasions where the living pay their last respects to the dead, and are a stark reminder of human mortality. Occasionally, people shed tears quietly while others wail. It is about honouring the dead the African way. But Kenyans have turned this once-solemn occasion into an ostentatious affair, with costs sometimes running into millions.

Sadly, in most cases, the money is not from savings or investment profits, but wangled from friends with threats of retaliation should they fail to contribute. Dying has never been so expensive.

Burials conducted far from a person’s ancestral home are the most expensive. The family must transport the body over a long distance, with a convoy of cars and buses accompanying the hearse. Hiring a hearse from Nairobi to, say Bumala or Uyoma in western Kenya, costs Sh70,000 but can go up to Sh100,000 for a trip to Matuga in Kwale at the Coast.

Mr George Kagwa, who runs Heri Funeral Services, confirms that the cost of funerals is going up. “The caskets are becoming more expensive, and so is the expenditure on fuel, tents, chairs, food, public address system, dressing up the bereaved, and even preparing the grave,” .

Mr Kagwa adds that, from what he has seen, a “modest” funeral can cost well over a million shillings.

Indeed, it seems like Kenyans are trying to outdo each other in the way they send off their loved ones. And capitalising on this trend, some insurance companies have come up with policies to cover some of the costs. But since such insurance coverage stands at 4.3 per cent, according to the Insurance Regulatory Authority 2014 Industry Report, most people depend on relatives and friends.

A report in the Journal of Human Development in 2013 found that families in the rural areas that had slipped into poverty cited funeral costs as a reason 63 per cent of the time. While some Kenyans opt to forgo expensive burials — for practical reasons — this figure clearly shows the kind of importance Kenyans attach to sending off their loved ones.

Mr John Omolo, who says he is now perpetually broke, laments that the problem is of our own making. His mother and uncle died four months apart after long periods of illness, which left them with a combined bill of Sh1.2 million. Mr Omolo, who played a key role in organising both funerals, says it took a heavy financial toll on him, his friends and relatives.

“My uncle died in May 2015 and my mother four months later. Both of them were living in Nairobi and we had to transport their bodies back home in western Kenya for burial,” he recounted, adding that the funerals cost Sh1.6 million, a sum, which, if it had been a loan, would have taken him around eight years to repay, given that he earns Sh42,344 a month.

Mr Simon Masai, a teacher at a city school, blames it on African culture. “Our culture does not allow us to bury people in cemeteries or away from their ancestral homes. Even if they die in Somalia or Europe, their bodies must be returned home,” he says, adding that in some communities, burying someone far from home is tantamount to inviting a curse since it is considered throwing the deceased’s body away.


The targets arbitrarily set by the funeral committees that meet in the evenings at some social hall or club is particularly hard on those who work far from “home”, Kenyatta University lecturer Henry Wefa notes. “The economics of funerals is mindboggling and complicated,” he says.Mr Wefa said that some middle-income families spend as much as Sh2.5 million on funerals. “This money comes from fundraisers, family savings and sometimes loans. Most of the time it is not money that they have but have to solicit from people,” he adds.

If the dead person was a high-ranking member of society, then the burden is even heavier. Anyone with any attachment to him or her is arm-twisted into making a contribution.

Ms Pauline Musyoki argues that while the huge amounts of cash spent on funerals is not justifiable, it is fine for those with the money to spend it the way they want, wish, “but it beats logic to take a loan or harass people with text-messages to send contributions.”

Often, mourners add to the expenses by turning the home of the deceased into an eating place of sorts, especially in the rural areas. For instance, some will take breakfast at the deceased’s home before going about their daily activities and later returning for lunch, and some even for supper. Given that some funerals take weeks to organise, feeding the mourners constitutes a major cost. Worse still, some mourners come with the express aim of stealing crockery and cutlery.

Bernard Kendo, whose father died in 2013, knows this only too well. “My brother, Kenyans are peculiar creatures. They will stop at nothing, including stealing cups and plates at funerals. When my father died, we locked up our valuables in a room for fear of losing them to mourners,” he told media.

Awkward demand

When 24-year-old Agnes Moturi’s mother died in September 2015, the burial expenses were hiked many times over following a court battle that sought to stop the 51-year-old’s burial following an unsettled bride price balance.

“I wondered why for more than 28 years they hadn’t been serious about claiming it,” she remarked.

Her mother’s people demanded three cows, four goats and Sh30,000, or else they would take their daughter’s body, which, according to local customs, would have been construed to mean her father could not afford to marry, which would have belittled him and his family. He was forced to pay.

Social worker Monica Njeri observes that the trend has led to “funeral fatigue” in the rural areas. The burden has now been left entirely to family members. “People are no longer willing to contribute for funerals. The worst happens if the person was living in the city. Those in the rural areas where he is to be buried leave all the responsibilities to those in the city, but they attend the funeral and expect to be fed well,” she says, adding that the biting poverty in rural Kenya and the breakdown of social structures is to blame.

Her sentiments are echoed by by Paul Mwakio, an aspiring MCA in Taita Taveta County, who says he’s expected to contribute to every funeral in his ward. “In the past, someone would donate a cow or goat, others brought firewood and volunteered to cook. But these days, that rarely happens. Now people want to sell you an animal when they hear you are bereaved, or expect you to pay them to cook for mourners,” Mr Mwakio said.

But it is not just in the rural areas that people are growing weary of funerals. “Even in town your best friends can go quite after you send them text messages and reminders. Others turn up, make pledges but don’t keep their word,” says Mr Gerald Mainye, who works in a Nairobi bank. That is why some urbanites and rural groups have started schemes to cushion them and their families from the burden of funeral expenses.


But the cost of death seems to be having more than just financial setbacks. Every Friday, many city residents travel out of town to attend burials. This means they leave unfinished business at their workplaces. Sociologist Dr Elvis Amasa says this means this has reduced a working week to just three days.

“Most civil servants leave for funerals on Thursday, and make their way back on Monday,” he observes, adding that it is time funerals were made simpler and less costly.

Much as convincing the bereaved that their loved ones are still respected even without heavy spending, is not always easy. However, Fr David Pesa, a Catholic priest, has some sobering words: “Before God, whether you are buried in a diamond or gold casket, or in a simple cypress coffin, what matters is your soul. Heavy spending cannot forgive your sins or hasten your journey to heaven,” he says. “But our traditions, do not understand this fact at all.”

Taking pre-emptive measures

In an attempt to cope since death strikes withour warning, businessman Josphat Wambua and 93 others have come together and formed a self-help group. “We are a group of 94 people and we contribute Sh2,000 monthly. If one of us is bereaved, we give them the cash to foot the expenses,” explains the father of three, who lives in Umoja Innercore. The group has been running the scheme, which comprises people working mainly in the informal sector, for two-and-half years now. Still, they wish people would spend more sparingly on funerals because they can barely foot half the budget of some funerals.

One man’s loss

While some people might be put off by the showy affairs that funerals have become, there are those making a killing. Ms Claire Maina, who offers tents and chairs for hire, says the new trend in funerals has made death one of the most lucrative industries. “Death supports coffin makers, professional mourners, mortuaries, florists, funeral homes, transport companies, caterers and insurance firms, among others. All these people make profits from funerals,” she says.

Besides, she adds, the inevitability of death assures them of business all year round. Indeed, setting up a mortuary can be a very lucrative venture, much as many people have traditional and religious reservations about it.

Anyone who doubts that death makes for good business should ask coffin maker Festus Kamweru, whose products cost between Sh12,000 and Sh100,000. “I sell a minimum of five caskets a week”, he told media.

With Kenya’s annual death rate standing at 21 people per 1,000 in 2014, according to the United Nations Population Division, this translates to a huge number among the country’s close to 40 million people. This means that billions of shillings are spent on funerals.