Why dying abroad is such a costly affair

If you have been paying attention to newspaper obituary pages lately, you may have noticed a surge in the number of Kenyans dying abroad.

Obviously, as more Kenyans go overseas for education, greener pastures or sheer adventure, the more their presence is likely to be noticed, felt and reported in those countries.

However, a keen observer would also have noticed that quite a number of the deceased are either buried or cremated in those countries.

A spot check by Saturday Nation revealed that the cost of transporting a body from, say, the United States, back home for burial is simply prohibitive.

We set out for this assignment with one simple question for Kenyans living in the US: “Where would you like to be buried?”

As expected, the answers varied, depending on many factors. Many, however, thought being buried in their ancestral homes would “offer some sort of a closeness to the family.”

Ironically, although most Americans have life insurance which also covers the expenses upon death, a suggestion that Kenyans should borrow a leaf from this was variously frowned upon.

Still, we encountered some Kenyans who have embraced the American culture in that respect.


Two years ago, the family of an Atlanta-based pastor who had passed away announced, to the surprise of many, that he had expressed his wish that there would be no fundraiser to offset funeral costs.

“This is an exception rather than the norm. “Ordinarily, even those with insurance cover still want people to contribute generously,” said a family friend who did not wish to be named.

In the last 10 years, Kenyan entrepreneurs living abroad have established what is often referred to as ethnic online media in the form of news blogs, online content aggregators, a few online radio channels and YouTube TV channels.

Among the numerous services these online outlets undertake is announcing deaths of Kenyans living abroad and sometimes relatives who pass on back home.

Almost one hundred per cent of death announcements found in these websites include appeals to fellow Kenyans to help in raising funds to ferry bodies of the departed back to the motherland for burial.

“The first thing that happens when a fellow countryman dies is for the immediate family members or friends of the departed to convene and strategise on the way forward,” said Mr David Maina, a Kenyan community organiser in South Boston, Massachusetts.

“If the departed had close relatives near, then half of the job is done,” said Mr Maina, adding: “But many of us are alone here and if, the inevitable happens, then many factors will be at play.”


Interestingly, many Kenyans in diaspora tend to disassociate themselves from their compatriots, until something tragic happens in the family.

“Some people are so isolated from fellow Kenyans for reasons ranging from immigration status to social class,” explained Mr Maina. “Often we get to learn of their plight from local media or from their relatives back home.”

Key among these factors is the network of friends such people had.

Most church ministers who lead Kenyan congregations are usually in the frontline whenever tragedy happens.

“Sometimes I receive calls regarding the death of persons who are completely unknown by any other Kenyan,” said the Rev Samuel Kimohu of the St Stephen Anglican Church in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The Rev Kimohu says due to lack of other secular associations, many turn to the Church when calamities befall a fellow Kenyan.“It is a huge burden to the church, especially because the Kenyan community has greatly expanded in the last few years.”

As we came to learn, bringing the body back to Kenya takes a colossal sum of money, a lot of community commitment and skilled organisation.

“Depending on the funeral home, the number of days the body will remain there and other factors, the cost ranges between US$10,000 (Sh880,000) to US$15,000 (Sh1.3 million)”

The Rev Kimohu says at times the budget can shoot up to $30,000 (Sh2.5 million) because family members and close friends who want to accompany their loved one back home need air ticket included in the overall budget.

“But must we be buried in Kenya when we die?” asked the Rev Kimohu while explaining that it costs only upto US$3,000 (Sh265,000) to be buried in a cemetery in the USA.


“I am yet to understand why the community has to go through so much trouble to send the body back to Kenya only for the deceased to be buried at Lang’ata cemetery,” he said.

And then there is the issue of the expectations of relatives and friends of the deceased back in Kenya. “Even when the family is able to chip in some amount, they leave the burden of raising funds to the Kenyan community abroad,” he said.

“Raising over $10,000 is not an easy feat. At times family members demand to be handed the balance after all the work.

“It is unfortunate that some family members expect too much from the Kenyan community abroad” added Rev Kimohu.


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