A Proper Burial

Posted Jun 22, 2009 by 10 Comments

“There you are! We’re leaving.” Pastor Chris said as he popped his head in the Karura Chapel office, bubbling with excited energy. It was the first time I had seen him all day.

“Where to?” was my immediate response, but at the pace he was moving, I knew I would have a better chance of getting answers if I simply followed him out the door and asked questions later.

It wasn’t until we were in the car that Pastor Chris revealed our destination. “We’re going to a burial.” His mood didn’t seem to fit the occasion, but I kept listening.

He explained that a poor man had recently died with no family nearby able to pay for a funeral. “So we are going to give him a proper burial.”

For Kenyans, funerals are hugely important ceremonies.

For Kenyans, funerals are hugely important ceremonies.

Now, I was beginning to understand. The “we” he was referring to was a group of pastors involved in a new initiative led by Karura called CAISA, the Churches Alliance In Social Action. Their vision is to connect pastors who are passionate about social justice to work together for transformation in the Nairobi area.

The man who died had passed away while sleeping in one of these pastor’s churches last week. The only other facts I learned about this man was that he had been a drug addict and hadn’t seen his family in over 10 years.

CAISA pastors address the onlookers.

CAISA pastors address the onlookers.

After picking up another CAISA pastor on the way, we pulled off the main road and entered a maze of rocky, steep paths and blind turns that wound through the village known as Banana Hill. The cemetery was on the far side. Even the Kenyans in the car doubted whether our little car would survive the trip.

It was a good thing I had already been informed that funerals in Kenya are traditionally huge affairs. First, friends and family go to the mortuary to retrieve the body, then the whole community, usually over 1000 people, attend the funeral service at a church. Afterwards, a few hundred go to the gravesite, which is ideally located on family-owned property. In the evening, a crowd gathers at the family’s home to grieve together.

But when we finally arrived at the tiny public cemetery, I could tell this funeral would be different. No building or even a sign marked the spot – just a field with a few mounds of dark red dirt rising above the overgrown grass indicated where the other graves existed. The little band of 50 who had gathered were attentively listening to the few pastors addressing them. Their faces wore almost no expression, but the mood was very somber.

So what was the reason for Pastor Chris’s joy? Why did I get the sense that something significant was taking place? As I observed the service proceed, I strained to see the situation from the perspective of those scattered there on the hillside.

For a homeless man in Kenya, a real coffin is an unbelievable luxury.

For a homeless man in Kenya, a real coffin is an unbelievable luxury.

Normally in this situation, since this man was not part of a church or family, the community would have pooled some money to pay the mortuary fee, then buried him themselves without a coffin.

But this time, four or five pastors, holding one of the most respected positions in their society, had come to pray and conduct a service. And the most they knew about him was that he was a drug addict.

I looked at the faces of those who listened, prayed, and then lowered the coffin by ropes into the ground. I especially watched the men, those who likely led a very similar lifestyle of bondage to drugs and alcohol that had killed their friend.

As I stood in the crowd of strangers, unable to understand the Kikuyu language they were using, much less the difficult realities of their lives, I realized just how limitless God is. He not only understood their words, but he was aching with them. And through these pastors who had come to pray with them, he had communicated that no life is insignificant in his eyes. Not this man’s. Not theirs.

One of the homeless man's few friends taking it all in.

One of the homeless man's few friends taking it all in.

Afterward, several people asked me for my impressions…was this funeral very different from those in America? And surprisingly, my honest answer was no…all the same elements were there. The prayers, songs, Scripture, down to the display of photos, though there were only two of them.

Perhaps, that was the amazing part about this funeral. Despite the small numbers and simple setting, somehow, we had made this a “proper burial.” Those who knew and loved this man were present. The leaders of the surrounding churches had blessed the service. And the bright yellow and pink wild flowers plucked from the hillside served as the most lovely adornments for a grave I could have imagined.

It truly was a beautiful sight. Now I could see why Pastor Chris was so excited. CAISA was restoring dignity to their communities in a radical new way that reached beyond this one burial.

“The news is going to spread like bushfire!” he predicted with anticipation. And so will a new sense of joy and hope for those who now have a bigger, more-encompassing picture of God’s love. I know that I’m one of them.

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About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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  1. eness said... 


    June 22nd, 2009 at 12:33 pm  

    It still amazes me how what seems like such a simple thing to do can have the kind of depth and impact that you describe. Praying for you, Jess. You’re doing great.

  2. Dave Rod said... 


    June 22nd, 2009 at 4:24 pm  

    I was struck by Pastor Chris’s hope that the news was going to spread like a bushfire. What news I am wondering? …the dignity that has been offered to the marginilized? …the power of churches united in social action? …the wonder of the love of God expressed thorugh his people?

    No matter what news spreads from it I am moved that 5 church leaders would gather to invest in the life and death of one lone nearly forgotten man. A ton of resources poured out for a single nearly wasted life.

    Maybe they saw Jesus in his face. That is vision. That is news worth spreading. That is a mission and purpose worth embracing in our own community.

  3. Amy Osgood said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 8:20 am  

    This story shows me the reality of God’s sparrows. There isn’t anything that HE doesn’t see, no creature can escape His love. What a blessing that even in death, this man could be “known”.

  4. Sharon said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 11:44 am  

    I’ve been mulling over this story since yesterday and it has brought so many pictures into my mind: stories I’ve heard of the graves of unknown AIDS patients in South Africa and the mass graves in Rwanda, memories of my mother’s packed funeral service, even the little old family cemetary down the road where someone still leaves flowers on the graves. All people, no matter their lifestyle, are made in the image of God and should be mourned and remembered.

  5. Rob Yonan said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 10:35 pm  

    This has me wondering what indignities we may be able to address together, in our own community, in the world of teenagers (my calling colors my lenses).
    This also reminds me of a Kenyan funeral I attended back in 2005. It was cold and I was given a neon yellow rain coat – as if I didn’t stand out already (I was the only ‘non Kenyan’ present in a sea of Kenyans). It was an incredible experience of community. Your experience brings back that memory with even deeper insights. Thanks!

  6. Julie said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 9:31 am  

    Thank you, Jessica, for sharing this experience. You have brought me back to Africa and changed my outlook on today. How quickly we can get swallowed up in the busyness of life and forget how small things like just being present can make a positive difference in someone else’s life.

  7. Brad Ruggles said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 9:34 am  

    That’s why I love reading this site. We all know about social justice needs like AIDS relief and food programs but who would have thought there was a need for a burial outreach? What a great way for the local pastors to serve their community with a very real need.

  8. Jo Nading said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 12:24 pm  

    I, too, have been thinking since I read this yesterday. What IS it that we humans need from a funeral? Obviously the one who has passed is in need of nothing – it’s for those of us left behind. Is it for our own closure? Is it to somehow bring honor where we want it to be due? Do we need to impress God – remind God (in our small minds) that regardless of any mistakes in life, the person we have lost deserves heaven? I know for my father’s funeral, it seemed really important for ME that I get to TELL everyone how I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my father was in heaven. Beyond even that, it was a chance for me to witness my faith, my humanness, the gospel of God’s love and Grace and forgiveness thru Christ. The full military burial – the flag – the gun salute…is this what we call celebrating a life? The “stories” that were not at all TRUE – but sounded so wonderful. It is so far at the other end of the continuum from those mass graves – that sicken me to think of…yet at the same time I can be as easily sickened by the other end – the “show” that a funeral can often be….definitely has my mind racing..

    So – I guess I, too, wonder what message will be sweeping like a bushfire.

    Jessica – you have done a wonderful job here. You have made this reader connect with you, with the Pators, with the family of the deceased…and your words and pictures have caused both my head and heart to churn. Perfect!

  9. Caitlin said... 


    July 2nd, 2009 at 8:28 pm  

    It amazes me how much a “simple” burrial can be such a big deal. It really makes me wonder how many opportunities I am letting slip by. If it’s not a big deal for me, is it a big deal for someone else?

    I love reading your work, Jess!

  10. Nick Kirongo said... 


    March 3rd, 2010 at 3:28 am  

    Inspiring work Jess, I understand the aspect of community funerals because I have known nothing else my whole life. With so many negative news on our media these days, your piece definitely spices up my day

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