-Clears misconception about the new law in Lagos
HON. Sanai Agunbiade is a member of Lagos House of Assembly representing Ikorodu Constituency 1. The two-term member is also the Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary. He spoke extensively to ENCOMIUM Weekly on the Cremation Bill just signed into law by Governor Babatunde Fashola. It’s revealing and interesting.
What informed the enactment of the Cremation Law?
There have been problems with local governments getting land to inter the dead. Most of the existing grounds meant for burial are so full that we hear complaints of people exhuming dead bodies to bury another one. Apart from this, we had complaints from various mortuaries across the state as to the number of unclaimed corpses. To that extent, you have the preservations made for these dead bodies expiring, decay setting in, odious smell coming from there, people raising alarm of epidemic as a result of rats coming to mutilate the dead bodies, creating ugly sight and the way dead bodies are piled on top of each other as if they are logs of wood. This prompted the House of Assembly to set up a committee to go round our mortuaries to see things themselves. The report brought in by this committee was so scary. We found out that there are so many unclaimed dead bodies in virtually all the mortuaries in the state. And when the mortuary authorities asked for permission to bury these bodies, they couldn’t get land to bury them.
We know what land is in Lagos today. To get a parcel of land in Lagos today has become something similar to warfare and not of litigation anymore. Family to family, individuals against family and the rest of this. So, no family is willingly ready to surrender its land for mass burial. So, we were trying to look for a way out of this. The idea came as to cremation of unclaimed bodies. We looked at the idea. When it was brought to the floor of the house, it generated heated arguments. The leadership of the House (Assembly) said okay, let us see how it is done in some other places. I know some people travelled to Florida (USA) to see how it’s done there.
Members of Lagos House of Assembly?
Yes, members of Lagos House of Assembly.
So, that means the bill was sponsored by a member of the Assembly?
Yes, it was a private member bill. We now agreed that before we deliberate further on the bill, let us see the feasibility of the idea in Lagos State. Let us see how it is done. That led them out of the country, to see crematorium. They came back with clear illustration of cremation in other countries and we were persuaded that it is a decent way that does not in any way disturb the sensitivity of any religion. The idea is a scientific process through which extraction of the major component of human body which is water is gotten rid of by heat and the whole body mass becomes something that could be turned to ashes, which is akin to biological process that takes place during decay in the soil. The law does not restrict it to unclaimed or unidentified bodies alone but to individuals who voluntarily decided that they want their remains to be cremated. It was a very extensive debate. At the second reading, we say okay, let us inform the general public about this new bill.
We therefore did the public hearing. Some argued for and some against, that is the beauty of democracy. Areas that the people did not like about the bill, we removed them and we passed it into law after which it was sent to the governor who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). For the governor to have appended his signature, he must have found the law worthy.
The impression a lot of us have about cremation is that corpse will be put on fire.
That is a misconception due to sentiments. Some people are saying that it is unholy, ungodly to put human body on fire. We have said it is not cremation by putting fire and burning. I must say here that the Yoruba interpretation of the passage of the law by some press men fuelled the impression that there will be fire and burning. This is not so. This one is to be done through a crematorium. Crematorium is a place built specially for cremation.
Firewood will not be used?
No. It is scientific. It is through electronic means. Firewood is not involved at all.
And there will not be naked fire in the process?
No naked fire. The law provides that you cannot cremate any dead body in Lagos State, except you go through the process laid down by the law. The first procedure is that cremation must be done in a proper crematorium. Every cremation must be approved by the Commissioner for Health. As an individual who wants to be cremated you must have written it in your Will. So, in applying for cremation by the family of the dead person who wanted to be cremated, they must include in their application, the death certificate, the cause of the death, the birth certificate and of course, a copy of the Will. You must also mention the person that will collect the ashes after the body is cremated. In the case of unclaimed body in mortuaries, it is the medical officer in charge of the mortuary that will apply to the Commissioner for Health after the body must have been in the mortuary for six weeks. He must also attach the necessary documents. When the Commissioner approves the cremation of such bodies, notice will be given to the general public. After 14 days, the cremation will be carried out. Again, 14 days after the cremation is done and nobody comes forward to claim the ashes, it will be interred in a place that has been created for such.
As to the argument of religion or fate not supporting cremation, if a man of a particular religious sect decides on his own that he wants to be cremated, his decision overrides any religious sentiment. With unclaimed bodies, unidentified, you don’t know the name, you don’t know the origin and the person’s religion. So, how does that offend somebody’s religion when you cannot identify that person’s religion? That cremation is not mentioned in religious books or scriptures does not make it ungodly. May be it was never practiced by those people at that particular time. But we know society is dynamic. We must continue to go along with anything that promotes and preserves healthy environment. That will preserve decency. We must also react to the challenges of our environment and our society. The challenge we have in Lagos State is that land is becoming gold and there are not enough parcel of land to bury people. Government cannot continue to keep unclaimed dead bodies in perpetuity. The government has responsibility for the security and welfare of the citizens as said by Section 14, 26 of the constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The welfare entails that the conditions of society must be preserved. So, it is in line with provision of the constitution that we have made the cremation law. I agree that we need more sensitization for people to understand the law. That it is not burning of people with firewood. It is a decent process that does not give out offensive odour.
Do we have crematorium in the state now?
Yes, as at the time we are actually debating the bill, I think we have one or two private crematorium. But I don’t know where they are located.
Which means people are already being cremated in the state?
No, I don’t think so because there is no law that backed such then. The debate on the law of cremation has been on for over a year now, maybe in anticipation of that bill being passed into law that people built it (crematorium). I don’t think anyone is in operation yet.
At what cost will it be to cremate a body?
I don’t know. That is why the law also provides for regulations to be made by the Commissioner for Health.
Why do you think people are against cremation even when the law says it’s voluntary and for unclaimed bodies in the mortuary?
Most people did not know that it is voluntary. Two, most people do not know how it will be done. Most people anticipate a naked fire burning and they feel this will debase human nature. Cremation does not disturb normal burial process. If you want to inter your own, nobody disturbs you.
- TOLANI ABATTI
This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday,June 25, 2013