Nigeria’s Cremation Bill’s Tortuous Journey

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 The cremation law has been passed by the Lagos State House of Assembly against the wish of residents of the state reports EROMOSELE EBHOMELE

Last Friday could be described as frustrating for staff, guests and members of the Lagos State House of Assembly because the sitting scheduled for 10 a.m did not start until about 4 p.m. Ordinarily, the House does not sit on Fridays, but a similar late commencement in sitting the previous day resulted in the lawmakers’ inability to exhaust the Order Paper, which outlines the issues to be deliberated upon. The leadership of the House adjourned till Friday.

Hon. Adeyemi Ikuforiji, Speaker, Lagos State of Assembly

However, in the midst of the anger and lamentation, one of the lawmakers and Chairman of the House Committee on Health, Suru Avoseh Hodewu, was very excited. His Cremation Bill, one he personally proposed to the House, would finally see the light of day. And it did.

Indications that the bill, which has now legalized the cremation of unclaimed corpses at any of the government mortuaries in the state as well as voluntary cremation of corpses by those who want it, would be passed became clear on Thursday when the House took the presentation of the report to establish the law.

As such, some media houses concluded that the law had been passed even though the lawmakers had not taken the third reading which would herald the Speaker’s gavel to bring the bill to life.

The bill came about after its sponsor told the House that most of the mortuaries in the state had become full and that through the oversight function of the Committee on Health, it had been discovered that majority of the corpses cannot be identified.

Mr. Avoseh had told his colleagues that this had become a major challenge to those handling corpses in the state such that new corpses do not find spaces for preservation. He had also argued that with the location of the state, it had a major challenge in terms of enough space for the burial of corpses and thus believed that people could be encouraged to cremate corpses of the relatives as a possible solution to these challenges one of which is the decongestion of the mortuaries.

While confirming that cremation was strange and new in Nigeria, the lawmaker said with the introduction of cremation, health officials, who were faced with the problems of how to get land, and thus resorted to mass burials, would be relieved.

Avoseh was supported by the likes of Mrs. Funmilayo Tejuosho, representing Mushin Constituency 1, and Mudashiru Obasa representing Agege Constituency 1 at the House, as according to them, the present condition of mortuaries in the state could cause epidemics if nothing was done urgently. While Tejuosho said that people should have an option to cremate their dead while unclaimed bodies should be cremated by the state after six months, Obasa said that the idea would reduce the incidence of the ritualists, who often invade cemeteries at night to mutilate corpses.

It was with such ease that the bill’s journey began. It was then broken into sections with Section 2 stipulating that no cremation may take place except in a crematorium established by the Ministry of Health or by any other body upon the recommendation of the authority and approval by the Commissioner for Health and Section 6 stipulating the guidelines to getting permission to cremate and listing those eligible for permission to cremate to include a child or children of the deceased; a close relative of the deceased; an undertaker and an agent/legal representative.

Also Section 8 of the law gives the Medical Directors of the state hospitals power to order cremation of unclaimed bodies in their respective mortuaries but that this must be with the consent and approval of the Commissioner for Health while Section 10 of the law states that the cremator in charge of a crematorium must not dispose of the ashes remaining after a cremation except in accordance with any reasonable written instructions of the applicant adding, however, that the cremator in charge may bury the ashes in a burial ground if, “within one year after the cremation, the applicant does not give reasonable written instructions for the disposal of the ashes.”

The lawmakers may not have anticipated the hitches suffered by the bill. It was several times rejected by residents of the state making critics think it may end up being like other laws that were only passed just to add up with the already existing ones in the gazette and without effective implementation.

Within the House, one lawmaker, Bayo Oshinowo, opposed the bill till it became law. Osinowo, representing Kosofe 1, who had, at the bill’s proposition, warned that the tradition, culture and religion of Nigerians had to be properly considered before embarking on the act, had also argued that the congestion at mortuaries was due to the negligence of morgue attendants.

Again, during the adoption of the report that would enable the bill pass through the third reading of the House, Oshinowo called on the state government to provide land for burial of corpses rather think of cremating them.

Stressing that many Nigerians are not in support of the bill, he stressed: “cremation is not part of our culture. If government cannot provide land to bury our dead, then it is a shame to humanity.”

Oshinowo’s position had been echoed by residents of the state in several fora. During the public hearing of the bill, officials of the state government and the lawmakers could not convince those in attendance as the latter stood their ground in opposition stressing that it was against religious and cultural practices in the state and country. They also accused berated the state government over the poor state of the mortuaries saying if the morgues were taken care of, there would be no problems with the 180 unclaimed corpses which the state said it was battling with. They also punctured the state government’s excuse of lack of space saying the space were being amassed for the construction of expensive estates by the same government.

A resident, Abdulrasaq Olatunji, who spoke on behalf Muslim lawyers in the state, asked the government officials: “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 it land to be used for mass burial?”

Another Muslim leader, Abdulmojeed Addulkareem, explained that the proposed bill was against Islamic faith as according to him, “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 heads.

“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.”

Few days later, the Catholic Church and the Oshodi, Lagos branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria, also expressed their rejection of the bill and asked the lawmakers to throw it out.

In a statement by the Very Rev. Gabriel Osu, Archdiocesan Director of Social Communications, on behalf of the Administrator of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Okogie, the Catholic Church said: “the issue of cremation is a very sensitive one because it bothers on our culture, tradition and religion. As Africans, it is against our culture and as Christians it is against our religious beliefs. In the Koran, the respect of the dead is very clear.

“They do not allow the corpse to stay long, not to talk of cremation. We believe after life and the need to give the dead proper burial as prescribed in the Bible.

“I do not see any one who would want his corpse or that of loved ones cremated. Already you can see the response of Lagosians during the public hearing. Most of those who spoke are vehemently opposed to it. It is not acceptable at all. My advice is for the lawmakers to quickly jettison the idea and look for better ways of dealing with unclaimed corpses,”

Urging the government to build more modern and affordable cemeteries in various parts of the state as well as rehabilitate the old ones, the statement added: “it is only in Africa that we have no respect for the dead. Go to Atan and Ikoyi cemeteries, for instance, they have been over-taken by weeds. Security is another issue entirely. The dead deserves to rest in peace.”

On his part, the head of CAN in Oshodi, Pastor Barnabas Otoibhi, in a statement, described it as a culture of shock to see loved ones being burned in the name of cremation.

Otoibhi, who is also the General Overseer, Temple Rebuilder Mission, said apart from the fact that the bill came to Nigerians as a rude shock, “if the bill is passed into law, it will impact negatively on our socio-cultural values. Cremation is incompatible with the cultures of the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. One of our socio-cultural values is paying the last respect to the dead. Cremation or burning the body of the dead certainly does not amount to paying the last respect to the dead.

“The government has a constitutional responsibility to preserve and promote the cultural values of the nation. But if this bill on Cremation is passed into law, the government will unwittingly be creating an avenue to erode one of our much cherished socio-cultural values.”

Many residents of the state also expressed reservations concerning the bill to the extent that the Speaker of the House, Adeyemi Ikufoiji, while speaking at a Ramadan lecture gave the impression that the bill would not be passed against the wish of the people.

“Let me assure our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters that the assembly will not go against your wish concerning the cremation bill. If you say you do not want the bill, we will not pass it. We will not do anything to jeopardise your interests.

He however added: “I am a Muslim, I cannot allow my corpse to be burnt but we should allow those who want their dead bodies to be burnt have their way,” he added.

Now that the House has passed it in the face of this heavy rejection, it is left to be seen how it would be effectively implemented by the state without attracting the ire of the already irritated residents.

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