Living among the dead

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022 07:51 | By

Ten years ago, Mike Martins bought 10 acres of land with the aim of putting up his holiday home. But it turned out that he was in for a surprise. In one patch of the land, hiding beneath bushes and trees, was a graveyard.

In the country, it is fairly common for families to bury their dead in their homesteads, and some put permanent markers. In some cases, however, unscrupulous landowners are known to remove headstones to make their property appealing to buyers.

“I didn’t know that there was a graveyard on the property when I bought it. The graves were discovered after a worker grading the field for the foundation of my house saw a skull,” he said

Martins decided to continue with his project as if nothing had happened. Today, a seven-bedroomed maisonette sits on that land and he wants to put up other houses. None of his family members knows that their house is built on a grave.

However, he fears that one day they will come to know the truth and they won’t take it lightly. This is because many people are wary of living on such grounds. 

But is sharing a space with the dead something that would worry you? Would you continue to live in your house if you found out that it is built on a graveyard or cemetery?

Fear of ghosts

Lucy Wambui, a Nairobi resident says that she cannot live in such a house because she is scared of ghosts. She believes that building on a burial ground is one way of disturbing the dead and in revenge, they usually appear in form of ghosts to haunt those who are disturbing their peace.

“If today I learn that my house was built on a burial site, I will abandon it no matter how much it cost me. Staying in such a house is like moving in with the dead. I can’t live in such a building,” Wambui says.

Though she has never seen a ghost, she believes that they exist. Apart from not living in such a house, she also says that she cannot buy land that has a grave or one that is near a cemetery even if it is offered at the lowest price.

Contrary to Wambui’s belief, Amos Njau, a Kiambu resident says he wouldn’t have any problem living in an old graveyard as long as the bones are removed and re-interred somewhere else before the building works commence. For him, graveyards are places of peace. Apart from that, he doesn’t believe in ghosts and only believes that only the living can hurt.

“Hidden graves are surprisingly common since most people bury their loved ones on their properties and few put permanent markers. If I buy land and later on some human remains are discovered, I will just move the remains to another location before I start developing the land. I can’t abandon my property because of such a revelation,” says Njau.

While this might sound macabre, graveyard recycling practice is gaining popularity across the world. In German, for example, Berlin’s graveyards are being converted for use by the living. These sites are being converted into public parks, playgrounds, and even land for new housing.

Available research shows that this is happening because burials are becoming outdated in Berlin and many people are now choosing cremation instead leaving residents and authorities to figure out how else they can utilise the cemeteries spaces, which are no longer needed for burials.

At one kindergarten in Central Berlin, for instance, the playground is built on an old graveyard belonging to Sophien Church. There, children chase each other on bicycles, run around with balloons and climb on top of tombstones without any fear.

Handling human remains

But what is one supposed to do if they discovers human remains on his or her property before or during development? Antony Odeck, an Advocate of the High Court says that in a scenario where one discovers remains they ought to report the incident to the nearest police station so that an inquest will be conducted because one may never know the circumstances that caused the death of the deceased, especially if the previous owner did not declare or disclose the same at the point of purchase.

He says that in Kenya, it is illegal for one to build on a cemetery without approval. But if the graves are on private land, the owner is responsible for removing the remains before transferring the title deed to the third party. 

“If the remains have not been removed after the transfer, the buyer can sue the seller for misrepresentation and one can seek damages for the lack of disclosure. The damages may cover emotional and psychological harm due to discovery of human remains, and as we know we Africans are superstitious,” he says.

Secondly, after such discovery, it is important to note that one ought to be careful not to exhume the remains on their own. According to Section 137 of the Penal Code because it’s illegal to do so without permission. The law says that one needs to go to court for a court order to be permitted to remove the remains. Once the order is granted, then one can pursue a claim for damages as this would strengthen their claim against the previous land owner.

“In Kenya, there is a lacuna in the law on the disposal and handling of dead bodies. Various reasons will justify the need to exhume or disturb burial sites, especially where a willing buyer discovers that the land he or she is or was interested in was a burial site or human remains are within the premises,” says Odeck.

He adds: “Section 44 of the National Coroners Service Act of 2017 allows the Coroner General to apply to the court for an exhumation warrant. When that order is granted, exhumation should be conducted professionally and with care and attention and the agencies conducting it should preserve the soil samples.”

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