Home EVENTS Supreme Court Judge’s Death Sparks National Debate On Burial Rights In Uganda

Supreme Court Judge’s Death Sparks National Debate On Burial Rights In Uganda

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Supreme Court Judge’s Death Sparks National Debate On Burial Rights In Uganda

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KAMPALA, Uganda — The death of a supreme court judge in Uganda has sparked a hot public debate on the burial rights of the dead and surviving spouses in church marriages. The debate started after the death of Justice Stella Arach-Amoko, who succumbed to cancer at Nakasero Hospital in Kampala on June 17.

She was supposed to be buried on June 23. However, the judiciary, which was organizing her burial, was forced to halt the program abruptly after Justice Arach-Amoko’s biological family petitioned against the burial at her husband’s ancestral ground in Adjumani District, West Nile.

In their petition dated June 19, to the permanent secretary of the judiciary, Pius Bigirimana, the family said Justice Arach-Amoko had asked to be buried at her ancestral burial ground in the neighboring Nebbi District next to her late father’s grave, not in Adjumani, where her husband hails.

“This is a humble petition of the biological family of the deceased Hon. Lady Justice Stella Arach-Amoko against the alleged decision to bury our deceased sister and mother in Adjumani. We are praying for your good office to overturn the decision and to have her buried at our home in Nebbi, where her father was buried as  she wished,” read part of the petition.

The family indicated in the petition that “while still at Nakasero Hospital, where she died, Justice Arach-Amoko invited her biological brother Godfrey Picho and verbally expressed her wish to be buried in Nebbi.”

In the petition, Arach-Amoko’s children also noted that they had no connection to their paternal ancestral home and had never been introduced to the burial ground or shown land where their mother would be buried. 

The family of ambassador Idule Amoko, the late husband to Arach-Amoko, shot back, insisting that since their son married the deceased in church, he  had the rights to bury her at his ancestral burial ground. The family argued that the marriage vow made in church gives him the rights to take over the burial of his late wife, including deciding her final resting ground.

However, the biological family insisted that the marriage vow, “till death do us part” ties the couple together until death and that since Arach-Amoko is now dead, the vow is no longer binding, meaning their step-father has no burial rights over her.

The judiciary called off the burial plans and asked the two sides to first reach an agreement on where to bury her before the burial plans would resume.

In letter dated June 22, the judiciary’s chief registrar, Sarah Langa Siu wrote to the chief justice, his deputy, the principal judge, permanent secretary to the judiciary and the secretary to office of the president, indicating that the burial for the Arach-Amoko had been called off due to factors beyond the control of the judiciary.

“This is to inform you that due to factors beyond our control, the burial of the late honorable Justice Stella Arach-Amoko, justice of the supreme court, will not take place on Friday, June 23, 2023, as had been planned,” read the letter addressed to all justices of the supreme court, court of appeals, judges of the high court, deputy registrars, assistant registrars, chief magistrates, magistrates grade one and two and all the staff of the judiciary.

The decision to suspend Arach-Amoko’s burial meant that her body would continue to be held at A Plus funeral home until an agreement was reached between the two bickering sides.  

Note that the official burial of the justice of the supreme court, like that of other senior civil servants, involves millions of shillings sometimes given to either the spouse or children to cater for certain burial requirements.

ReligionUnplugged.com has seen a document signed by representatives of the two bickering sides indicating that they had finally agreed to bury the deceased at a neutral ground at Arua Catholic Cathedral Cemetery. The document read in part, “We the representatives of both families met, discussed and agreed as follows: that the families adopt a win-win spirit to resolve this matter, as it is in the best interest of both parties.”

But later it emerged that there was no such agreement reached and that the matter was left to the family division of the high court in Kampala to determine. And on June 23, Justice Ketrah Kitariisibwa Katunguka ruled that Arach-Amoko should be buried at her ancestral home in Nebbi District.

“The late Justice Stella Arach-Amoko shall be buried at Jukiya Hill Ward, Juba Village in Nebbi District,” she ruled, “The second respondent (attorney general) in consultation with the first respondent (Ambassador Amoko) is directed to immediately commence the burial arrangements without further delays.”

It’s important to note that the burial ground for the dead in Africa is such an important cultural aspect. Before the coming of Christianity in Uganda in the late 1870s, the dead were buried at their ancestral burial grounds.

However, when the church marriages started with the coming of Christianity, men who were married in church were allowed to bury their dead spouses at their (husbands’) ancestral grounds. The couples would end up being laid to rest next to one another on the same graveyard to live together even in death.

But today as human rights continue to gain shape in Uganda and Africa in general, women are beginning to question why only men have the rights to bury their spouses where they want, while the women are denied such rights.

As a result, court cases over burial rights in church marriages filed by female spouses are beginning to shoot up in Uganda, explaining why Arach-Amoko’s burial feud has raised a lot of dust.

ReligionUnplugged.com sought the views of the religious and opinion leaders in Uganda who also weighed in on the subject. The retired bishop of Mukono Diocese in central Uganda, the Rev. James William Ssebaggala, said that everyone involved in this  matter should be careful not to further widen the gap between the children and husband of Arach-Amoko. He noted that at this point, the biological children and the deceased’s husband are both seriously hurting due to the death of their mother and wife and must therefore be helped to heal instead of caused more pain in the conflict.

Ssebaggala added that to avoid such conflicts in future, the spiritual fathers of the married couples should always play their role of uniting the family members before death such that such divisions don’t erupt.

“If  enough homework had been done by the spiritual father to unite the family of Justice Arach-Amoko before she died, the deceased’s children and their father would not be divided to this extent,” he said.  

Joel Masagazi from Uganda Christian University argued that the church culture should be allowed to determine where Arach-Amoko is buried. He said since time immemorial, husbands in church marriages were allowed to determine the burial grounds of their dead spouses, and therefore the same should be done for Arach-Amoko and the husband, Amoko.

The retired supreme court judge George Kanyeihamba, who also weighed in on the subject, said the judiciary had no powers to determine where to bury Arach-Amoko. He did not, however, explain who had such powers.

But the Rev. Grace Lubaale, from the faculty of social sciences at Kyambogo University, advised spouses to make wills showing where they prefer to be buried in order to avoid such fracas and embracement in death.

Lubaale added that since church marriage stops when a spouse dies, the surviving spouse should not claim the rights to decide where the dead spouse should be buried, especially if the latter made either a verbal or written will. But he noted that where there is a conflict between the children and the surviving spouse over the burial ground as it is with Arach-Amoko, the latter should be allowed to make the final decision since African culture permits it, especially where the husband paid dowry. If a clear precedent is not set with this incident, this feud could be the beginning of many others to come as spouses battle other family members for the burial rights of their dead spouses.



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