When the Lagos State House of Assembly muted the idea of passing a cremation bill, which seeks to make cremation a legal and acceptable way of handling corpses, little did they know that it would attract widespread outrage from members of the public.
The state’s move to legalise cremation is being condemned by many professionals, religious bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as an overbearing interference of the state over what should after all be a private, cultural and moral matter.
While many advocates opposed to the bill are speaking out and enlightening the public on why the idea must be kept in the coolers at this level of its conception, others see cremation as a concept too difficult to deconstruct and understand.
One pressing aspect of the issue that pundits have refused to ignore is the fact that Africans cherish their corpses, hence the bereaved usually give befitting burials to the dead. As a mark of respect, they don’t mind spending huge sums of money to buy expensive coffins and clothes for funeral ceremonies.
As far as the people are concerned, the practice of cremation, which is a process of burning the human corpse to ashes and sprinkling the ashes into the sea, is alien to their culture. It is predominantly practised in India and other parts of Asia.
Thus, the issue has continued to take centre stage at the stakeholders’ forum, where speakers often castigate the lawmakers for basing their argument on the large population of the state which has limited land.
The skepticism against the legislators’ move is not unconnected with the fact that in the African culture, it is customary to give the dead a befitting burial. It is further argued that if the cremation bill is passed into law, it would later be made mandatory for the people.
Sponsor of the controversial bill, who is also the chairman, House Committee on Health, Hon. Hodewu Suru, said that the bill, if passed into law, would assist the state in land management as well as prevent epidemic diseases in Lagos environs.
Public hearing on the bill became imperative because of the ire it drew after its first and second reading on the floor of the House.
House members, therefore, decided to organise a public hearing to know the opinion of the people towards the bill, and as expected, Lagosians rose against the idea of cremation, saying it is against the African culture.
Some of the stakeholders who spoke at the hearing slammed the state government for claiming that there are no available lands in the state to be used as cemeteries.
They accused the state government of using lands within the state to build expensive estates in order to make money.
Some of them also blamed the poor state of mortuaries within the state on the failure of government. They stated that if a corpse is cremated, it is regarded as disrespect for the dead.
They blamed the state government for shying away from its responsibility of providing an enabling environment for the people.
AbdulRasaq Olatunji, who spoke on behalf Muslim lawyers said, “If it is true that lands in Lagos State have been exhausted, why can’t the state government liaise with other neighbouring states and ask them to give them lands in order to be used for mass burial.
Speaking on behalf of a Muslim group known as the Common, AbdulMojeed AddulKareem explained that the proposed bill was against Islamic faith.
He said, “If we keep silent on the issue, and we say unclaimed corpses should be burnt, the spirit of Muslims among the corpses will be on our head.
“This idea, apart from being against our religion, is also against our culture. If you say there is a crematorium in Ogun State, we know that there is no such law in Ogun State. So we are not in support of this particular bill,” he added.
A member of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Dele Asaju, explained that, “When someone is dead, the spirit is gone and what we see on the floor is just the body. Even the bible says that we should give dust for dust and ashes for ashes.”
One man that would not fail to bare his mind on an issue like this is the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Cardinal Okogie who slammed Lagos Assembly over the bill.
He said the Church was totally against any move to legalise cremation or the desecration of human corpse in any guise as it believes in life after death.
Amid controversies generated by the bill, deputy speaker of the House, Taiwo Kolawole assured that the committee would ensure that the will of the people prevails.
Kolawole, who tried to douse the tension over the bill, posited that many of the cemeteries in the state were filled to the extent that the bereaved are forced to pay through their noses to get their dead buried.
In what appears to be a resolve to go ahead with the passage of the bill, he maintained that most corpses to be cremated are those that have been abandoned and did not have identities, saying the state mortuaries are overstretched currently due to the number of unclaimed corpses.
Chairman, House Committee on Information and Strategy, Hon. Segun Olulade, said the issue of cremation was what Lagosians must embrace, saying there are unclaimed corpses in the mortuaries that need to be disposed of.
“We must be proactive in our dealings, and most importantly, we are looking into the future, and that is why Lagosians must support the bill. The cremation is voluntary and whoever that wants its corpse to be cremated should be allowed. I think people are misinformed about the bill.
“Even if the bill does not make it, I know that one day we will still go back to it because we don’t have enough land to bury corpses in Lagos. If care is not taken, it would lead to epidemics, and that is why I said that passing the bill into law should be our collective responsibility,” he said.
Although the issue at stake is not one of civil right, it is moral. A peep into the proposed bill shows that Section 1 recommends that crematorium must be maintained in a good working condition and provided with duly-certified operators. Section 5 of the bill talks about family approval for voluntary cremation of the deceased.
Also, the affected family must obtain a certificate of coroner, and the cremation authority would only give the ashes to the applicant or person nominated for that purpose by the applicant.