When studying and writing some historical information about the Maasai, it never even crossed my mind that in that tribe, so beautiful, important and archaic, I would discover such a shocking custom, which has been really puzzling me until today, whenever I remember their narrations.
In my research, I was impressed by the riches and culture of the Maasai, which we do not encounter in other tribes. I have given plenty of information about their life and activities, but when the question “What do they do with their dead people?” arose, I came up with an thunderous answer. 50 years ago, or maybe less, in the areas where the Maasai live, there was not even a question of burial.
– “So, what did the Maasai do with their dead?” I asked one of the tribal chiefs.
– “They threw the dead body into the forest hoping that it would be eaten by the hyenas and the other wild animals”, said the chief.
At that point I cut off our conversation and thought that it would be better to see things the way they are today, in order to avoid the traumatic experience caused by this information. Fortunately, with the arrival of Christianity, this custom ceased to exist.
For more than 30 years that they have known Orthodoxy, I have been given the chance to see and live many people’s death at close range.
It is a fact that the funeral customs differ from one tribe to another. Most tribes give the impression that death is an event of great joy. Lately, I have had the chance to attend the funeral of a young Maasai, who I happened to know and who was interested in studying at our Orthodox Patriarchal School, in next academic year. George was a young man of rare spiritual gifts, and I had already started thinking that one day that youth would become a good priest and would help the Maasai communities.
For unknown reasons, despite the fact that I had talked to him the day before he died, he did not reveal to me that there was something wrong with his health, and while I was on tour around west Kenya, his younger brother called me and announced to me that George had commended his spirit under unknown circumstances.
In order to be able to go to his funeral, I discontinued my tour and rushed to the place. Plenty of Maasai people had gathered there, hundreds of them, dressed in their traditional costumes, surrounded the place, particularly his peers. After we conducted the church service, there were speeches given by his relatives as well as by the village authorities.
The whole atmosphere was not at all joyous as is the case with other tribes, where they dance and sing ceaselessly for several hours. The Maasai were completely different. I noticed no cultural feast whatsoever with the usual traditional singing and dancing. On the contrary, the people were silent and watched everything with reverence, particularly the bishop’s memorial speech.
This was not the first time I had been given the chance to speak at a Maasai funeral. In the previous cases as well, the funeral was of young people too, therefore, I took advantage of the fact in order to emphasize on the great sensibility people usually have in such cases, knowing that a young person’s death is a definite cause of deep sorrow, not only for his peers and friends, but mostly for his family members.
This was also a chance, by making a brief flashback, to remind the older ones of their ancient custom, where without a second thought they threw the dead into the forest, so that it would be eaten by wild animals. Research carried out found that the Maasai tribe had been defying death since ancient times. That was the main reason why such a custom prevailed. Probably they came up with this solution so as not to think too much about it, or torture their mind, or even because they were reluctant to spend too much money. In fact, they were materialists and had no deep spiritual experience. Their spirituality could be characterized as rich only through their own reality; that is they gave the image of “the good savage”, as described by the 18th century writers, Rousseau and Voltaire.
Therefore, that day I wanted to convey the message of the resurrection of the dead because I knew that the funeral was attended by people of all ages and beliefs — baptized, non-baptized, educated, uneducated. Perhaps that day these people realized for the first time how important the human person is for Orthodoxy, since it recognizes the living image of God in it.
This was definitely a new hope for their own mentality and culture, which opened new horizons for their spiritual training and progress. We should not forget that we are talking about people who were inimical towards their fellow humans a few years ago, that is why anything that led to death cost them nothing.
What really impressed me was the order that prevailed, the solemnity and utter silence: no noise, no shouting, no dancing or singing. They quietly lowered the coffin of the dead man into the grave, covered it with that hard soil of the Maasai land and then, they walked away in silence.
After the funeral, we sat under a tree, where young people surrounded me and started asking me questions about the afterlife, the resurrection of the dead, as I described to them in my speech. They showed so much interest and understanding that I realized these people longed for catechism and for the depth of orthodox spirituality in relation to death. I thought that was the right moment, at least for the youths, to give this message of hope, eternity and expectation of the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Christ.
May our efforts not only with the Maasai but also with the other tribes, manage to offer the real meaning of Orthodoxy to the souls of these much afflicted people, who long to meet and taste the springs and the ethos of our Orthodox faith as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
† Makarios of Kenya