Cremation, religion and tradition


WHEN Emma and Moses !Aebeb got married 27 years ago, they vowed that only death would separate them.

Emma contracted Covid-19 and died on 17 September this year in Windhoek.

Due to travel restrictions at the time, !Aebeb and Emma’s family had two choices: to let her be buried by the state in Windhoek in their absence, or to have her cremated and to bury the ashes at a burial site of their choice.

They had 48 hours to decide and finally chose cremation.

“It was a difficult time, but we had to do it. I loved my wife very much and I wanted her to be buried close to me. It was the first time in our family we had someone cremated,” !Aebeb, who is a police inspector, said.

It was not the send-off he had planned for anyone in his family as in the Damara culture, the mourning period is two weeks to allow everyone to come from all over the country.

Emma’s remains were brought to Swakopmund by the undertaker. She was buried at Swakopmund cemetery amongst the people that she loved.


The novel coronavirus has led to cremation in Namibia gaining momentum in recent months.

This has, however, been met with reservation in many cultures.

Namibia’s only crematorium is situated in the Gammams Cemetery in Pionierspark, Windhoek, which was built in 1975.

Some 17 Covid-19-related cremations have been conducted at Gammams since 14 September.

Alfeus Benjamin, chief executive office of Swakopmund’s muncipality, says there are several reasons why Namibia has only one crematorium.

“There was no demand for such services. Cremation is largely a European concept, which Africans are not amenable to due to their religious and traditional beliefs on how the dead should be sent off to their next life, although burning people dead or alive used to be a practice in many African traditions – even in Namibia,” he says.

Benjamin says town planners may never have regarded crematoriums as a priority.

“Of course, with the development and growth of towns and cities, space for and the cost of burials have become a challenge. The next alternative is cremation. Africans in general regard the use of ‘fire’ as total destruction with no possibility of an afterlife,” he says.


Cremation is more affordable than burials and would save burial space.

Wacca Kazombiaze, manager of parks, cemeteries, sports and recreation at the City of Windhoek, says the Gammams crematorium usually runs for three to four days every two weeks.

At present, 20 to 30 cremations take place each month.

He says the code of cremation practice ensures the identity of the cremated person is retained throughout the cremation process.

Kazombiaze says families can pay their respects to their deceased with a grave site or tombstone.

“Ashes can be interred in a niche in the columbarium at the Gardens of Remembrance and sealed with an engraved marble plaque, and can be scattered there as well,” he says.

Ashes may also be collected by the next of kin and kept at home or scattered at a favourite site, he says.

The crematorium uses diesel to cremate bodies with. The proces takes roughly four hours, and the packed ashes are made available on the day after the cremation, accompanied by a cremation certificate.

The deceased is cremated in a coffin, which must be provided by the family and is burnt completely.

Kazombiaze says items like pacemakers and implants are removed from the body before cremation.


Although Namibia is a secular country, 95% of its population are Christian, who mainly bury the remains of their loved ones.

Reverend Lukas Katenda, a religious and moral education lecturer at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary (Nets) and International University of Management (IUM), says: “Cremation was adopted by the modern church, yet in the case of infectious diseases, bodies were cremated, but now, cremation is accepted among Christians.”

He believes cremation is not a sin in the Christian faith.


Most tribes in Namibia bury their dead. Burning of people is heard of in Oshikwanyama legend about girls who became pregnant before initiation and were burnt at the stakes.

Although not historically verified, the burning of these girls was believed to be a form of capital punishment.

“Dead people were either hidden or buried [in the Aawambo culture]. Hiding the corpse was a result of superstitious practice in honouring the dead person’s wish that he or she may have given instruction before dying. Another reason was that there were no tools to be used to dig graves, so people carried the corpse to a distant place and hid it there,” Katenda says.

In the Herero culture, the deceased is buried alongside their parents unless they requested otherwise before their death.

A traditional funeral can cost between N$20 000 and N$100 000 or more.

According to the Herero Ombara Otjitambi adviser on traditional affairs, Kavezembi Katjomuise, people of the same family, birth hierarchy and same surname are buried at the same cemetery.

He says this is done so that they do not lose their self-worth, and so that their children will know where their parents are.

Katjomuise says according to Christian beliefs, there is life after death, so when they die, their souls will know where to reunite and stay together.

“For us to cremate is to burn until there is nothing, but we still want the bones to remain. That’s why we bury,” he says.

He says it is important for the deceased’s bones and souls to be together as this gives them the power to watch over their family.

King, Justus of the Damaras, says Damara culture does not allow cremation, but there is no other option during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Even in olden times our elders wrapped a body in a blanket or animal skin and buried it,” //Garoëb says.

Among some Okavango tribes, mourning for days did not exist.

According to Shampapi Siremo, a historian, these tribes wanted to be buried because of the fear of their flesh being devoured by hyenas.

“As for cremation, that has never been considered. Burials for the Okavango people is a sign that you were loved. People are buried at a chosen site, and some in cattle kraals. Traditional leaders are buried in mushy ground so that the floodwaters can wash their graves away to signify their return to the river where they are believed to have come from,” Siremo says.


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