The Dangers of Home Burials, and Why They Continue to Exist

In present day Nigeria, particularly in the South, there is a common practice which poses an environmental and health risk to us all. This practice is called home burials. A home burial occurs when a deceased person is buried within a residential compound or inside a house.

It is common among various ethnic groups such as the Igbo, Yoruba, Ikwerre and Tiv people of Nigeria, and in various places such as Rivers State where land scarcity has led people to bury loved ones in the rooms they occupied while they were alive.

The act of burying loved ones in homes and residential areas creates environmental hazards that can affect both present and future generations. In 2013, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State warned residents of the state to stop burying loved ones at home, particularly because if one wished to dig a well or borehole in the future, that water may be tainted with toxins from a dead body decomposing in the earth.

As a matter of fact, studies carried out on cemetery groundwater in Australia, Brazil and the United States found that there was evidence of contamination by organic products from the decay process of human remains. Also, if we’re truly honest it would be really creepy to walk into a house and be told that an actual human body rests beneath your feet.

In the Southern part of Nigeria where home burials are popular, Section 246 of the Criminal Code clearly states that carrying out a home burial without the Governor or President’s consent is an offence punishable by a jail term of six months. However, home burials are part of our traditions.

Among the Yoruba people, burying a loved one outside the home can be viewed as casting them away. Other tribes believe that the home burial preserves their connection to the deceased person. Home burials also enable some communities such as the Tiv to determine whether or not the individual buried there died a “good” or “bad” death.

A good death would be one which occurred in old age due to natural causes, and a bad death is death by a dreaded disease like cancer. Tiv people who died good deaths are buried within the family home, but those who died bad deaths are buried in the public cemeteries. So what happens when traditions and the law are in conflict?

Simply put, acts of the National Assembly trump all other laws in the country including cultures, traditional beliefs and practices, which are commonly referred to as customary laws. But this does not necessarily mean that all traditions and customs are void. There is a legal way of determining the applicability of customary laws, which is called the repugnancy test.

The repugnancy test simply states that “in order for a customary law to be applicable it must not be repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, must not be incompatible with any law and must not be contrary to public policy”.

Following the test above, the tradition of burying loved ones in residential properties should not be applicable because it is clearly incompatible with Section 246 of the Criminal Code. However, the practice persists in the South.

During Babatunde Fashola’s tenure, the Lagos State Government started tackling the practice of home burials, but they failed to look at the factors that cause people to bury deceased persons on residential property. Apart from customs and traditions which have been discussed above, there is another reason why home burials are popular. This reason is land scarcity.

Abonnema in Rivers State is just one of the places where land scarcity has led to a change in how the dead are buried.  The most recent census from 2006, found that approximately 156,000 people lived in the town which covers an area of 1,443km2. In the past, all deceased persons were buried in the local cemetery but presently, the cemetery cannot accommodate all the deceased. For many years used graves were dug up to accommodate more bodies and now many people choose to bury the dead inside their homes.

Many authors who point out the dangers of home burials suggest that public cemeteries should be used instead. However, even if the government decides to make it compulsory for all future burials to be carried out in public cemeteries, other issues will emerge. These issues range from the mismanagement of cemeteries to the cost of a cemetery burial.

Public cemeteries are not given any priority in Nigeria, they are often left in a terrible state due to poor management practices. Caretakers who are responsible for maintaining the cemeteries and graves do not carry out their duties as they should, and in some places, dead bodies have been dug up in the process of digging new graves.

In most African countries, much importance is placed on burials. Some tribes believe that if a person is not given a befitting burial, they will not gain admittance into the land of the ancestors. Therefore, if the loved ones of the deceased cannot trust that the cemetery will take proper care of their loved ones, they will be reluctant to use the cemetery as a burial site.

Another factor that discourages people from burying their dead in cemeteries is the cost of burying the deceased. It can cost between fifty and a hundred thousand naira to buy a burial plot in Ikorodu cemetery, and in Ikoyi cemetery the cost is even greater with prices starting from 450,000 naira. The United Nations defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day, and it has branded Nigeria as the country with the world’s largest number of extremely poor. In a country where six people become destitute every minute, where over 90 million live in poverty, and many are mourning the demise of the middle class, how will the poor bury their dead?

The responsibility of solving the problems stated above has been bestowed upon the Local Governments by the Constitution. They are responsible for the management of cemeteries. However, they have failed to carry out this duty satisfactorily.

In order to put a stop to home burials, the government should be concerned with not just the living but the dead as well. Housing the dead should be a priority, especially as death is one of the very few things that is certain.

Departments responsible for town planning should make provisions for cemeteries and in states where burials are regulated by traditions and customs, the people should be educated on the dangers of home burials. I believe that if people are properly educated on this issue through effective teaching techniques, they will make the necessary changes.

Law enforcement bodies such as the police, should also do their part to ensure that people obey the law which is clearly against the practice of home burials. And cemetery caretakers should be given fair wages, and carry out their duties with integrity, and respect for both the living and the dead. All people regardless of their wealth or status should be able to bury their loved ones appropriately. It should be a right, not a privilege.

3 Comments

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