Alone in death: Nakuru bears heavy burden of unclaimed bodies

A section of Nakuru north cemetery in Nakuru city.


For the last four years, Julia Wairimu has been seeking closure following the disappearance of her son Peter Kamau.

A year ago, a relative informed her that he had come across a notice published in the local dailies listing at least 100 bodies that were due for burial in a mass grave. Peter's name was on the list of unclaimed bodies.

"We have tried to contact the local mortuary in Nakuru to find out what document was used to identify the names, but we are yet to get any help. If my son was among the many Peters listed, we would want to know what killed him and why and give him a proper and befitting burial," the elderly woman lamented.

Although death is inevitable, there are those who die and are buried in mass graves without the knowledge of their families.

In Nakuru, health authorities are grappling with the significant costs of preserving unclaimed bodies that end up in mass graves.

By October 2023, the county had buried nearly 100 unclaimed bodies, including foetuses.

For example, in May 2023, the county disposed of 17 unclaimed bodies that had been lying at the Nakuru Level Five Hospital mortuary.

In the latest announcement, the county aims to dispose of 48 unclaimed bodies that have been lying at Nakuru Level Five Hospital main and annex mortuaries for three months.

"The bodies have been lying in the mortuaries for more than three months, causing congestion and are in the state of decomposing," reads part of a communique from the county public health office.

"The two families have exhausted all the available mechanisms to trace their next of kin without success. The county's department of health, hence calls upon members of the public who have lost relatives to come and view the bodies at the hospital mortuary for identification within 21 days from the date of this notice starting at 9 am to 4pm during weekdays. If not traced, the disposal will be done after the expiry of twenty-one (21) days from the date of this notice, at the Nakuru South cemetery,” the notice went on.

The county government is now urging residents to help solve the puzzle of unclaimed bodies that end up in mortuaries across the region.

Every year, between 200 and 300 unclaimed bodies lie in Nakuru County mortuaries.

Some of the reasons why families fail to claim the bodies of their loved ones include lack of money to bury them, myths that the dead will bring curses to the living, and lack of land for burial.

According to the Public Health Act 242 (Public Mortuaries) Rules, no person shall keep the dead in a public mortuary for more than ten days.

It also states that any person who fails to comply with the requirements of this rule shall pay to the Medical Officer of Health a penalty of one hundred shillings for each day the body remains uncollected.

Hospitals are allowed to dispose of unclaimed bodies for 21 days, provided a court order is sought and granted after 14 days' notice to the public.

Medical schools with legal backing and permission from the Ministry of Health are also allowed by the Anatomy Act Cap 249 to obtain unclaimed bodies for medical studies.

According to Nakuru County Public Health Officer George Gachomba, Nakuru is incurring significant costs in preserving uncollected bodies, sometimes for more than four months.

Mr Gachomba revealed that some of the bodies are those of unidentified accident victims and those from crime scenes.

"The cost of storing these bodies is a huge burden on our mortuaries and includes the cost of refrigeration. The large number of unclaimed bodies is a result of the public's reluctance to identify the bodies of their loved ones at the mortuaries. The county government has been paying huge bills, including electricity, for their preservation," he told the Nation.

Health department records show that in September 2015, for example, the county government disposed of 251 unclaimed bodies at a cost of Sh5 million, while in March 2016, another 63 bodies were buried after being kept in mortuaries for more than three months.

Nakuru Level Five Hospital, the largest referral hospital in the South Rift, has been grappling with the headache of unclaimed bodies in its main and annex mortuaries.

Hospital authorities say the facility, which has a capacity of at least 77 bodies, disposes of an average of at least 25 unclaimed bodies every four to six months.

Desperate families are sometimes forced to recycle graves, digging new ones on footpaths within the cemeteries and along fences to accommodate fresh bodies.

The county has been struggling to find suitable land for cemeteries for more than seven years, since the main cemeteries were declared full.

The process of disposing of unclaimed bodies involves obtaining a court order and issuing a 21-day notice inviting the public to come and identify the bodies.

In most cases, no one turns up and the unclaimed bodies are buried in a mass grave.

After a 21-day notice period, the Public Health Act Cap 242 of 1991 states that an unclaimed body should be removed from a mortuary within 14 days and disposed of in a mass grave only after the public health officer has obtained permission from the court.