A section of Langata Cemetery in Nairobi. [Photo: David Njaaga, Standard]

The number of pages dedicated to obituaries in two of the leading dailies has gone up lately.

Demand for space is only rivalled by the auctions section. Both are signs of bad news – the death of loved ones or businesses.  

As a young boy, I never saw obituaries in the newspapers. I must say I’m not that old; I never witnessed the lowering of the Union Jack.

Obituaries were mostly done over the radio. There was no luxury of SMSs or WhatsApp groups where death is announced instantly.    

Dispatching messengers to inform relatives of someone’s death was standard procedure in the past.

It’s hard for the digital natives to visualise a world without SMS, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and other apps that connect us and at the same time enslave us. 

Curiously, obituaries never did well on TV. In West Africa, specifically Ghana, billboards are popular means of announcing the passing of prominent persons. That in addition to people eating boiled snails left my head spinning.   

Let’s get back to why I love obituaries. Read on, I am not celebrating death, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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First, obituaries should be life lessons for the living and the deceased serving as an inspiration to the next generation, just as our ancestors did.

An obituary should illuminate one’s life, identifying key lessons for the next generation. Just check on the obituary pages in the New York Times, and get an idea of well-researched and written obituaries.

In the West, some obituaries are prepared long before the person in question dies. Here, even writing a Will is a problem. 

Two, obituaries, particularly in the print media, are for a selected few. They are expensive.

You can use them to gauge the social-economic class of the deceased or their family. The space occupied by the obituary is a good proxy for one’s social-economic class. That’s why full-page obituaries are rare.  

Whether the obituary is in full colour or black and white can also give you a hint on the social-economic class of the deceased.

This can also be deduced from whether the person is smiling, frowning or their photo is abstracted from their national identity card.

From the hairstyle, eyeglasses and attire, you can ferret a lot about the social-economic class of the deceased.

The cause of death can also give hints on the social-economic class. Was it from a disease, accident or old age? What of the time before the burial? Obituaries are open books for the curious. 

Where the body is preserved is also an indication of the person’s social class.  Is it at the Kenyatta National Hospital’s private wing or the Lee Funeral Home?

A young boy grazing cattle at Lang’ata cemetery. [Photo by XN Iraki]

Private ceremony

So is the relatives’ country of residence; are they in the UK, South Africa or the US?  Rarely do you find Tanzania, Uganda or other “local” countries in the obituaries.

Where the funeral service will be held is another sign of socio-economic class; is it at a cathedral or local church?

And where will the deceased be buried? Is it at a public cemetery or their farm? Is the ceremony private or public? 

The number of children and where they worked also show their socio-economic class. Some obituaries are generous, they even list the deceased previous workplaces.

Also, whether the family will be holding a fundraiser or a Harambee to offset the medical bill is another indicator of social class. Never mind that fundraisers have become standard irrespective of the deceased’s social class.  

WhatsApp groups have become the new fundraising platforms, with contributions publicised like during the KANU era.

I’m always fascinated by our generosity when it comes to matters of death. Someone who has never bought you a cup of tea will turn up at your funeral with loads of cash.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the photo of an old man requesting us to give him whatever we intend to give him when he dies went viral; it left a lasting impression in my mind. 

Three, obituaries are a good source of undiluted information on power and influence in this country. Most obituaries are guarded, leaving lots of information on relationships – who was married to who and who fathered who? 

Such relationships inadvertently reveal how power and influence in Kenya are distributed or shared. They may explain why so and so was given a big political job.

They may also explain how public sector jobs are “shared” despite the facade of meritocracy.

Obituaries could explain patterns that look random. Be keen and you will easily get the web of relationships that extends into the private sector and times beyond the borders. 

Do a deeper analysis and you can easily predict who are the future owners of this country and the economy. 

Some religions, such as the requirement that someone must be interred within 24 hours, thins the obituaries market.

The new government requirement that someone must be buried within 72 hours further dents this market. The market has been enjoying growth in the past few years partly because of our love for exclusivity even after death. 

Obituaries are about sorrow and tears over the departure of our loved ones. It seems 177 years since Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebman introduced Christianity in Kenya, the long shadow of death has never shortened. 

Beyond Bible verses and lots of poetry, obituaries are a goldmine for curious researchers who want to understand the soft levers of power and influence in Kenya.

Next time you buy a newspaper, do not skip the obituaries pages; read them like a love letter; now you know why. 

Finally, we condole with all the families who have lost their loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope with vaccines and our behavioural change we can blunt the death’s sting and shorten its long shadow of fear.

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