I. The Temple
I arrived at Ramgarhia Sikh Temple in Pangani at 10 a.m., half an hour late for the temple ceremony, but early enough for the cremation just a few minutes’ drive away, at Hindu Shamshan Bhumi in Kariokor, Nairobi.
Until then, I had known the temple as the tranquil and sublime white building behind the distinct eye-popping blue and yellow gate along Thika Road, just as you enter Pangani. But my impression of the inside, on this day at least, was pleasantly different from how I had built it up in my mind, strange considering the event was a funeral.
Each time I passed the temple, I pictured the interior as a drab white, but it was largely colorful and buoyant, partly because of the vibrancy of the funeral garb and the lavish colorfulness of the assorted flowers.
The women were wearing white Shalwar Kameezs and flowing wrap garments, with long, loose white scarves partially draped over their sleek brown and dark-haired heads.
But it was the men, in their dazzling miniature orange-yellow cotton headscarves that for me, stole the show and infused life into the white temple, just slightly easing a dreary and sad day.
Amidst the commotion, I lost the chance to learn the symbolism of the colors, but I know Sikhs, both male and female, have to cover their heads before entering the temple.
As I entered, the four bodies were being hand-carried from the temple into four glossy dark Mercedes hearses, dressed in white Sikh clothing and placed on rectangular metallic trays, decorated along the edges by beautiful multicolored flower arrangements.
And so the long and painful procession to the crematorium began.
My editor had assigned me to follow the funeral of the Vohra family (the family that co-owns the Sarova Hotels) from the start to finish, when they would be cremated, a duty I took on, but only because I didn’t have a choice.
There is an indescribable horribly intense feeling that comes with intruding people’s privacy in their most painful, most delicate moments.
II. The Crematorium
Kariokor is a neighborhood of queer contrasts.
Many people know it as one of Nairobi’s most populous slums, smelly, with slimy potholed roads and garbage-lined pavements, post-colonial stone buildings worse for wear and more recent (but still aged) unmethodical tin structures.
Yet inside the degraded slum, just past the cemetery where remains of some Kenyan soldiers that died during World War II rest, there exist intimate sparkly spaces with clean pavements, flowery gardens and fresh air, like Hindu Shamshan Bhumi.
It wasn’t my first time visiting a crematorium, though. On April 28, I covered the cremation of Kenneth Matiba at the Langata Crematorium.
It was a fascinating experience, first, because I had never attended a cremation before, and second, because Matiba’swish to be cremated when he died, largely contravened Christian and African beliefs.
But this cremation was a new experience altogether. Unlike the first cremation, the bodies were not burnt inside caskets, and it was done in the open air instead of inside an oven.
It was in a large rectangular open room in the middle of the garden, supported by brick and metallic wall columns.
III. The Cremation
At the cremation area, centered in the building, four cremation stations had been set up, one for each body. Each station was merely hay (or sawdust. I didn’t get close enough to confirm) stacked with heavy firewood logs.
Before the cremation, a brief eulogy (around two minutes long) was read, two religious hymns sang and a short prayer narrated. Then the bodies, placed on the stack and covered by firewood, were set on fire.
The piercing crackling of the heavy burning wooden logs angrily subdued the striking silence of the mourners squeezed in the room and scattered outside, as well as the faint sound of the light drizzling outside. The vicious orange-yellow flames, on the other hand, brightly illuminated the gloomy building, heating up the frosty air.
A few minutes after the lighting, one by one, the attendees walked away from the crematorium, leaving the bodies to burn into the night.
And just like that, in under three hours, the entire funeral (temple service plus cremation) was done. The only process left was collecting the ashes the next day.
I was intrigued by several aspects of Sikh funerals. I liked the brevity of the entire funeral process, which is so unlike African or Christian funerals that drag on for hours.
The funeral was also very simple, perhaps too simple, which I found refreshing. Unlike African or Christian funerals, there were no aggrandized speeches or eulogies, neither were there fanciful procedures.
Most importantly, I liked that the funeral appeared more about celebrating the deceased’s lives, rather than mourning them. I didn’t hear a wail—not once.